Violating a court order is usually not wise and is always risky no matter the circumstances. In ordinary times, seeking an emergency order is almost always a better idea than simply violating the order unilaterally. Yet we find ourselves in the midst of national crisis, the realities of which we are still coming to grips with. And it would appear naive to suggest that courts are going to find every parent who failed to comply with orders during this time in contempt of court once the dust settles. Certainly, with many courts refusing in-person hearings – and many citizens terrified to leave the confines of their homes – many practical reasons exist as to why a parent would not seek an emergency order to suspend or modify their current visitation arrangement.
In general, if you have significant (and legitimate) fears about your children being exposed to infection during visitation, your first step should be communicating these concerns to the other parent and seeking a compromise. If you cannot agree on a plan to be in place for the duration of the pandemic, which is likely, short-term agreements about an upcoming weekend or visit is certainly preferable to one parent unilaterally canceling the other’s court-ordered visitation time, even if his or her reasons for doing so appear justified (see our Blog post on co-parenting during COVID). If no agreement whatsoever can be reached, parents should consider filing an emergency motion with their local court, possibly seeking an order permitting a temporary suspension of parenting time.
If filing a motion is impractical or impossible – such as if courts are closed due to coronavirus – parents should know that failing to comply with court-ordered parenting time is never risk-free. This pandemic presents an ever-changing factual situation, in which information that seems reliable one day may prove inaccurate a few days later. For example, a parent may prevent visitation with the other parent due to coronavirus fears, only to learn later that these fears were unfounded. It would appear likely though that parents who base their fears, and the subsequent decisions resulting therefrom, on information they hear on social media, or even from reputable news sources, are more likely to be found in contempt than parents who justify their actions based on advisories from local sources, such as government or specific employer polices.
How a judge will react to that parent’s decision at a subsequent hearing will depend on a variety of factors, ranging from the certainty of the risk the parent was seeking to avoid, detailed documentation of quarantine efforts that affected the decision, and that parent’s own history of co-parenting and compliance with visitation orders. For this reason, parents should attempt to seek permission from the court whenever possible before unilaterally restricting parenting time based on virus-related fears.
In all this confusion and uncertainty, what is clear for parents is this: before making a drastic decision concerning your rights as a co-parent during these frightening times, you should strongly consider contacting a local attorney about whether emergency relief is appropriate to seek under the circumstances. As the saying goes . . . better safe than sorry.
If you would like to talk about your family law issue with Max or another member of our team, please call our office (601-898-8655) or confidentially submit a basic intake form so our staff can complete a standard conflict check.
Max received his law degree from Mississippi College School of Law, graduating cum laude. During law school, he received multiple American Jurisprudence awards, as well as the Adams & Reese Pro Bono award. Prior to law school, Max was an upper-school Spanish teacher and varsity basketball coach at Jackson Academy. He brings a passion to helping you navigate the stressful realities associated with family conflict, while providing solution-oriented, compassionate counsel. You will love working with Max because he will help you develop and understand your legal, financial, and emotional goals.