Mar 02, 2021
Families and Family Law During the Pandemic: Changes from Remote Working and Learning
Mar 02, 2021
By Christina Sherman
The pandemic and the possibility and necessity of remote working and learning have shifted family dynamics in fundamental ways. Some of these changes, such as children attending school in their home, are transitory (if not transitory enough for most families). Others, such as the ability of some separated parents to work remotely instead of moving away from their children for their job, are sure to have a long-lasting, positive impact.
Separated Parents and Child Custody
Perhaps the first inkling of how deeply COVID-19 would impact Marin County families came shortly after the March 17 shelter-in-place order. Many separated parents were rightfully concerned for the safety of their children, as well as their own safety, as children shuttled from household to household. As a result, some worried parents went so far as to deny parenting time to the other parent. Because the courts were physically closed for many months, parents who were denied access were at a loss regarding how to ensure the legal enforcement of their child custody agreement.
To address the situation, Judge Verna A. Adams of Marin County Superior Court issued a set of six family law guidelines on April 7, providing legal guidance to separated parents in order to help ensure a level of consistency and stability for their children. The first guideline stated that COVID-19 was not a reason to deny parenting time because, unless otherwise determined by the court, parents are considered fit to care for their children and make decisions regarding day-to-day aspects of parenting while the children are in their care. In addition to providing definitions for spring break, summer break/vacation and other holidays when schools were closed, the other guidelines stated that:
- Supervised parenting time could be conducted virtually;
- Parents should follow remote learning guidelines set by their school district;
- First responders were not to be called to settle parenting-related disputes;
- Parents were encouraged to be transparent about their COVID-19 precautionary measures.
Judge Adams’s guidelines were so effective that some surrounding counties incorporated them to help guide separated parents through the ambiguities of child custody during the pandemic.
Home-Learning-Induced Changes to Parenting Plans
Certainly, the biggest impact of the pandemic on parents has been that children have needed to attend school while physically at home. For parents with younger or special needs children, this has been especially challenging. During the school day, a parent may be needed at a moment’s notice to help their child navigate a website and stay on track with class assignments, making it difficult for the parent to focus on their own work.
For some separated couples, one parent is an essential worker who has to show up for work in-person during school hours, while the other parent has been able to work from home. As a result, some couples have renegotiated their child custody schedules, with the children spending school time with the parent who can work from home. I have found in my legal practice that as long as the parents kept the children’s best interests in the forefront, these schedule rearrangements proceeded relatively smoothly.
Rising Divorce Rates
Although there are no hard numbers available yet, since the pandemic started, my family law colleagues and I have noticed a significant increase in the number of Marin County couples seeking a divorce. I believe it is because before COVID-19, it was often possible for a couple to spend much of their time apart.
One or both parents left home for work, had after-work social engagements or meetings, and worked out at a gym. Now, with many people working from home and spending their leisure time there as well, couples are interacting more. For some, this has led to an escalation of disagreements and arguments. Individuals who were previously on the breakup fence because they didn’t think they could afford divorce, or they wanted to stay married for the sake of the children, have decided it is finally time to ask for a divorce. For them, the relationship has become too emotionally draining to stay.
Remote Work and Learning Are Bringing Some Families Together
Perhaps a silver lining to the pandemic cloud is that the movement toward remote work has brought some separated families closer together, literally. I have clients, for example, where one parent had moved outside the Bay Area years ago when their employer asked them to relocate. Now, with more companies changing to permanent remote work, or only demanding occasional in-person office time, these parents can move back to the Bay Area and play a larger role in their children’s lives.
I have also seen situations where a parent who cannot move back to the Bay Area is able to have more time with their children because of remote learning. If a parent cannot work remotely here, a child may be able to learn remotely there, allowing them to spend more time with their non-primary parent.
If remote work becomes a permanent part of how we live our day-to-day lives, families separated by geography will only be stronger as a result. Remote learning has offered the short-term benefit of closer proximity for some non-custodial parents, although its long-term impact on student academics is unclear.
Christina Sherman is a Marin County family law attorney and Certified Family Law Specialist, specializing in divorce, child custody and support, marital contracts and other family law issues. She also holds a Master of Laws in Taxation and is a Super Lawyers Rising Star. Christina believes that people who once loved each other can reach amicable divorce and child custody agreements.