As we begin to emerge from the worst of the pandemic and look to return to some normalcy, we as family law attorneys need to recognize how the resulting changes to child custody and parenting time issues impact on how we will represent the best interests of our clients and their children going forward.
A custody and parenting time dispute typically involve issues of legal custody (who makes major decisions impacting on the child’s health, safety, education, religion and general welfare) and residential custody (the amount of time each parent spends with the child), the latter of which also involves implementing an agreed upon or ordered parenting time schedule. Often, one parent’s work life balance allows him or her to spend time more easily with the child and handle more primary caretaking tasks. For both parents, however, the reality of the eventual change in access to their child is an emotional and stressful one. A work-life balance can become even more complicated, as juggling between work and spending time with the child only adds to life’s daily stressors as each parent is left feeling he/she did not have enough parenting time.
As is widely known, during the pandemic many people began to work from home full-time. No longer spending substantial hours commuting to and from work, the previously unavailable parent is suddenly available. This has created a dramatic change in many custody and parenting time disputes. While oftentimes the parent who was unavailable to handle the bulk of primary caretaking tasks during the marriage will suddenly seek a 50/50 parenting time schedule and claim his/her work schedule is flexible to accommodate such a schedule, in today’s environment it has become the reality in many cases. For instance, in today’s environment, the evolving parenting role has transitioned from day-to-day care giving, sports, and leisure time to 24/7 caregiving and taking on the role of educator (while also working from home). This sea change, in and of itself, has created several new custody-related issues, which include, but are not limited to, quarantining issues and which parent is better equipped to assist in their child’s education (from both a skill and time perspective). We have also seen the so-called “right of first refusal” become a more frequently raised issue when a child is being virtually schooled and the parent scheduled to exercise time is unavailable to be with the child during the day.
More than one year after the pandemic commenced, attorneys are adapting this new normal in custody and parenting time disputes. While the “best interests of the child” remains the paramount standard, the conversation has changed and what may have been a more predictable outcome to address with clients is less certain. This has caused great stress for some parents, while also allowing others to have more quality time with the child that they may have lacked previously. It is ultimately a balance, and every parent’s definition and perspective on quality time is different, but equally important.
Our role as family lawyers to help guide our clients through the changing views of custody and parenting time remains intact as we do what we can to achieve the best possible outcome both for the parent on whose behalf we act and the child at the center of the matter.