COVID-19 and Minnesota Parenting Time: What’s Changed?

Little boy in a medical mask hugging his mother

In the course of a few months, it seems like the world has turned upside down due to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. The most mundane of activities, like grocery shopping or getting a haircut, have become impossible or unrecognizable. Most of those who are able to are hunkered down in their homes with their families to slow the spread of the virus.

But what happens when your family lives in two households? For parents who are divorced or who never married and live apart, that is the reality. A few months ago, the biggest concern most co-parents had regarding this setup was their child leaving their homework at the other parent’s house. Now, the simple act of a child moving back and forth between two homes can, literally, have life and death implications. How are parents coping, and what happens when they don’t agree?

How Coronavirus Has Impacted Parenting Time

Times of stress, as you may have noticed, tend to amplify disagreements and differences in parenting styles between co-parents. When that stress involves a risk to personal safety (not to mention financial well-being), things get even more tense. Co-parenting in these times is something of a two-step. In the first step, the virus makes us fearful for our health, our families, and our jobs: we’re wound pretty tightly. In the second step, we have to work together to navigate unfamiliar terrain with another stressed-out person, with whom we’ve had serious disagreements in the past.

Here’s how we’ve seen this playing out in a parenting time scenario:

  • Co-parents may have very different views of how serious the coronavirus is and/or different hygiene practices. One parent thinks the other is being wildly overprotective; the other parent thinks the first is being wildly irresponsible.
  • One or both co-parents may have a vulnerable person living in their home, such as an elderly parent or young child with a health condition. They fear the possibility of the virus traveling into the home with a child returning from parenting time with the other parent.
  • One parent works in an “essential” job that may expose them to the virus. The other parent fears that the essential worker parent may, while still asymptomatic, expose the child to the coronavirus.
  • Parents live an hour or more apart, and a drive to exchange a child that was not an issue pre-coronavirus has become more risky.
  • The child is “attending” school through remote learning and the parents have conflicting approaches to homework and helping them with the learning process. (In one case, a parent lived in Northern Minnesota and had no internet access for the child to attend school).
  • A child, already anxious from the coronavirus coverage, is further stressed out by the disruption that moving between houses involves.

Often, two or more of these scenarios overlap. When they do, parents may question whether it is worth disrupting the parenting time schedule to preserve their (or their child’s) mental or physical health.

How to Deal With Coronavirus Parenting Time Conflicts

Remember that in all things related to child custody or parenting time, the guiding principle is the best interests of the child. Of course, you and your co-parent may disagree on what is in your child’s best interests, which is why you are in conflict in the first place.

The good news is that children generally seem to be less severely affected by the virus, but there is still some danger, and it is not unreasonable for parents to be concerned about their child’s safety. We are aware of a case in which a parent who is a medical worker gave up parenting time temporarily, sending the child to live with the other parent and a grandparent in a rural location for the child’s safety. Fortunately, most cases don’t require this level of self-sacrifice.

Parents should, however, talk about the ways they can minimize the danger to, and stress on, their child. Depending on the circumstances, parents may decide to give up a 2/2/5/5 schedule in favor of one that allows the child to stay with each parent longer, minimizing the number of trips between homes and allowing the child to “settle in” to each home for a time.

The current situation may mean one parent gives up in-person parenting time for the time being, with a longer period of make-up parenting time during the summer or over the holidays. If this is necessary, parents should schedule regular video chats and/or phone calls between the child and the parent they are unable to see in person.

One thing you should not do is unilaterally stop parenting time without a written agreement (if possible) with the other parent. If you cannot reach agreement on how to temporarily re-arrange parenting time, mediation may be helpful and can, in these times, be conducted remotely. There is also a new process being implemented in Minnesota where you can get a retired Judge to make a temporary ruling during this time that courts are closed.  The new process does require both parties to be represented by counsel. 

If your co-parent is unable or unwilling to mediate, consult with an experienced Minnesota family law attorney to evaluate your options and protect yourself and your child, both legally and physically. We invite you to contact Mundahl Law to schedule a remote consultation.