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Contempt and COVID-19

The immunocompromised come in all forms – babies, children, adults, the elderly and there is no certainty as to who has or hasn’t been exposed to the virus. For that reason, many are finding themselves fearful of making exchanges for visitation to protect their child, their relatives, and even themselves. This situation is leading to an influx of questions about whether or not parties will be penalized, and to what extent, for violating their custody agreements, for purposes such as protecting against the spread of the virus.

South Carolina judges in the family court system have not made it explicitly clear what will happen or issued an opinion on the matter. At this point, we can only anticipate what sort of rulings on this matter the judges will come to based on each scenario. Until a decision or statement to that extent is made, that is all we have to work with. However, we can look to other jurisdictions to understand the trends and commonalities to propose the best course of action given the information in front of us.

Family court judge Randal A. Minor for Monongalia County, West Virginia released a statement advising residents to stay within the bounds of their agreements. Absent a petition to modify and motion seeking an emergency modification, parties may face contempt sanctions if the other party files a contempt petition.

After a stay at home order was issued by the state of WV, Lewis County family court judge Theresa Cogar Turner pointed out in a statement that the order permits an exception for those leaving home to facilitate visitation under a parenting plan or agreement. With that being said, Judge Turner, like Judge Minor, suggests coming to an agreement to alter the visitation schedule to accommodate for the situation. In the event parties cannot come to an agreement and one party unilaterally alters the schedule, then a finding of contempt may very well arise.

The Texas Supreme Court issued an order to the same extent as the two West Virginia counties. Like West Virginia, Texas proposes compliance with agreements. Where permitted, parties are advised to alter possession schedules by agreements. A Franklin County, Ohio judge made the statement that coronavirus is no excuse to violate shared parenting and contempt or fines are possible for violations.

While this may be frustrating to parents who wish to protect the health of their children, it is important to remember that the consensus of judge’s opinions on the matter stem from a strong effort to protect against those abusing the pandemic as an attempt to avoid having to follow their parenting plans. If your agreement permits modifications, it is best to make agreements with the other party regarding visitation, in writing, and to not willfully withhold visitation. It is imperative co-parents try to work together to come to agreements throughout this time to protect the best interest of their children.

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