COVID-19 and Family Law in 2020

What you need to know about family law matters during a pandemic.

Every aspect of the legal system in Dallas has been turned on it’s head because of COVID-19 and the ensuing state-wide shutdowns. Family law was not excluded. Because of the sudden school closures, businesses shutting down, rampaging unemployment, working from home, travel restrictions family law attorneys and their clients have had to adjust swiftly to accommodate this new way of life. To this date the Texas Supreme Court has enacted at least 11 unprecedented emergency procedures to help limit the spread of the virus that seem to keep getting extended every time they are almost up. So, instead of putting all legal matters on hold, causing them to get worse and/or more expensive, we must find new and creative ways to conduct legal proceedings. Now, individual courts have been giving the temporary authority to conduct proceedings by phone or video, allow remote appearances, and modify or suspend deadlines. In mid-May the state’s highest court ordered that all lower courts may not conduct “non-essential” proceedings in person. 

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How COVID-19 affects child possession schedules.

Specific to family law cases, the Supreme Court of Texas has ordered that the originally published school calendar shall determine a person’s right to possession of and access to a child under a court ordered schedule in all instances. Every county is a little different with how they are interpreting this order. To see specifically how your county is affected the State Bar of Texas is keeping a up to date database of all the legal resources available on court closures and orders relating to COVID-19. What is absolutely consistent throughout all counties is that all parties must continue to adhere to their court-ordered possession schedules. The court has decided that possession and access to a child “shall not be affected by any ‘shelter-in-place’ order issued by any governmental entity”.

However, if you need help deciding your best course of action or figuring out exactly how these new guidelines affect your child custody situation, feel free to contact the Law Offices of -John P. McCall Jr located in Dallas County for personal help with your unique situation at 214-617-9674.

Essential vs. Non-Essential Family Court Matters

Until further notice, in-person court appearances are limited to “essential family court matters.” What is considered an essential family law matter? By the current definition essential means: protective orders, family violence, writs of habeas corpus, CPS matters, and some other matters at the court’s discretion. 

If someone is facing a non-essential family law matter, those are being help via Zoom and other teleconferencing apps.  

Since time immemorial bureaucracies have resisted efficiency, expediency, adopting new technology and methods, thinking outside the box, creativity; digging in heels as deep as they’ll go, desperately fearful of disturbing the fragile, redundant, intricate, tapestry of formality and procedure that maintains their weakening sense of control over the population only reluctantly changing their ways when their outdated methods of control have been exposed or are unacceptably ineffective. 

The ways that courts are having to deal with this public health crisis is forcing courts, judges, litigants and every “late adapter” in the legal system to adapt almost instantly. Family law matters are being handled over Skype, Zoom, social media and other virtual platforms in a completely unprecedented way.  Now that everyone has been forced to “jump in the pool” instead of dipping their toe in the water for 20 years and it turns out “the water is fine”, who knows which of these new procedures will stick, or not, after the pandemic and the lock-downs are over.  For now, it seems like the best way approach these measures is to treat them as if they’re permanent. They may not be, but it’s a good idea to become proficient in these new procedures for the time being. 

Courts are operating differently due to COVID-19 and so is life at home for families. Living with the shelter-in-place orders has created many new legal issues for families. ​

Parenting and the Pandemic

Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Denton, Hunt, and Bexar counties have issued shelter in place orders that are just now (as of late May, 2020) starting to relax. There are growing fears that the easing of these restrictions will only cause a resurgence of the spread of COVID-19 and largely cancel out the progress made in “flattening the curve”. Nobody knows how things will go in the coming weeks and through the summer, but we do know that it is wise to have a plan for as many foreseeable scenarios as possible. This means being prepared to continue parenting with the attitude that these restrictions will be in place indefinitely. 

The Texas Supreme Court in their Seventh Emergency Order on March 24, 2020 regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster ordered parents to follow their possession and access schedule and that no shelter-in-place order shall interfere with that schedule. The only exceptions are if both parties agree to another arrangement. This applies to the entire state regardless of your individual county’s order. 
Tip from the family law experts: if you are trying to modify your custody, access or possession schedule talk to your attorney first before acting or making a negotiation with the other party. A verbal agreement between parties means exactly nothing in court before a judge. 

How is Co-Parenting affected by COVID-19?

There are no clear guidelines from the Texas Supreme Court about co-parenting and COVID-19. This is mostly because everyone is making it up as they go. The biggest concern is what happens if a conservator of a child believes they have been exposed to the virus. What absolutely has to happen is that they must notify the other conservator and they must confer to discuss the necessary steps to best serve the child’s safety and well-being. When the two conservators are deciding whether or not visitation should continue on as planned they should consult with a healthcare provider regarding the child and their potential exposure to the virus. If there is a reasonable safety concern that makes visitation a bad idea the parents should use video communication in lieu of physical visits until the recommended isolation period is over. 

Co-parenting is never easy. This pandemic is not making it any easier. It’s important that all parties remain flexible and are open to alternate arrangements. The safety and health of your family is the number one priority. It’s probably a waste of effort trying to argue the details of your arrangement at this point and splitting hairs about who is where and when. Those things are important, for sure. But relative to the safety of your child, not so much. It is recommended that all parties keep a record of all communication between parents, which should be in writing, via text or email, regarding problems with custody plans and proposed solutions. 

Does a parent have to pay child support if they become unemployed?

As in all cases involving child support the current court order remains in effect until it is officially modified in court. This means that if a parent loses their job for any reason, including COVID-19, there financial obligation continues until that parent files a petition to modify the child support arrangement and a judge has ruled on the issue. It is very important that the parent file that petition to modify as soon as possible after losing their job because the date of that filing is the date that the court may consider the modification to begin. It cannot be overstated, however, that the filing of the petition starts the process and the modifications may be retroactively applied but nothing changes until a judge has ruled on the issue. With courts being closed and the normal flow of business being disrupted there may be a substantial length of time between the filing date and when it can actually be heard in court. During this in between time the parent paying child support must continue to pay. If you cannot pay the full amount it is best to pay whatever you can to avoid an enforcement order when your matter is addressed. 

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