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Coronavirus school closure impact on contact and shared care arrangements

If you are separated or divorced and have a care plan in place for your children what happens now schools are closing across the UK? Can you just keep the children? What if you cannot work and you cannot afford to pay child or spousal maintenance?

Act in your child’s best interests

Putting the safety and emotional wellbeing of your children first may mean that you have to temporarily change their existing care arrangements or in some instances not see your children if you or they are unwell and need to go into quarantine. Your care arrangements may also involve international travel and you find yourself now not able to travel for contact. Parents will also now need to agree arrangements for ‘home schooling’ and potentially put this cover in place for the rest of this academic year.

Children’s level of stress rises when they witness arguments so take steps to avoid confrontations taking place in front of them. Why not use this crisis as an opportunity to co-parent and show your children that when times are tough, you will support each other. Try and work towards arrangements where you both feel you are making compromises and are putting the children’s needs first. A useful guide on how to discuss the changes that are happening as result of COVID-19 with your children can be found on the BBC website.

Plan for the long term and keep lines of communication open

We are in uncharted waters. The announced school closures may be for a prolonged period, so try to plan ahead and as far as possible put in a place a routine during this time. Co-parent with compassion so that you both get to make use of the extra time the children are not in school. If one of you has to miss out on time put in place arrangements to make the time up later. Given the current travel restrictions you may also need to talk about cancelling holidays and making alternative arrangements. Working though all these issues now will reassure the children and avoid disappointment for everyone.

You may find it helpful to have a written parenting plan in place. Guidance on listening to your child’s voice and how to go about entering a parenting plan can be found on the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) website:

www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/parents-and-carers/divorce-and-separation/childs-voice-separation/

www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/parents-and-carers/divorce-and-separation/parenting-plan

Coping with social distancing and self-isolation

If you do find yourself in self-isolation or not able to travel to facilitate the children spending time with the other parent, or indeed extended family members communication and cooperation is going to be key.

With the advancement of technology there are lots of ways you can keep in touch if you cannot be with your children. Make use of Skype, Facetime, email, texts or social media posts.

If you live locally you can also offer practical support by dropping off food and other household supplies as well as the odd treat for the children.

Court ordered care arrangements

If you have children subject to a court ordered care schedule, you may be confused and concerned about how you will now abide by the terms of the order. Most court orders will provide for a routine of care during term time and alternative arrangements to cover the school holidays. Your order will of course make no provision for long-term closure of schools as such a situation arising would never have been contemplated before COVID-19.

The current school closures are unlikely to be considered an extension of the Easter school holiday, regardless of how your child’s school has described the closure. ‘School holiday’ is likely to be defined by the term dates published by your children’s school at the start of the current academic year.

If you cannot agree what the arrangements should be during this period and you believe a change is in your children’s best interests, you will need to make an application to vary the existing order. Alternatively, if you are the parent who wants the terms of the current order to continue and the other parent is not complying with its terms you can apply to enforce it.

Parental responsibility

Parental responsibility is defined as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which, by law, a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”. In simple terms a person with parental responsibility is responsible for the care and wellbeing of a child. The law does not list what these responsibilities are but will include making medical, educational, cultural and religious decisions.

Mothers will automatically have parental responsibility for a child, however, this is not always the case for unmarried fathers. A parental responsibility agreement can be entered into or failing agreement you can apply to the court for it.

Child abduction and relocation

You will of course have to weigh the benefits of your children visiting friends and family abroad against your concerns or government guidelines on health risks associated with travel.

A parent needs the permission of everyone with parental responsibility, or permission of the court, to take a child under 16 years old out of the jurisdiction of England and Wales. This applies even if you are just planning a holiday abroad with your children. If however you have an a order in place stating that the children live with you, you can take them out of the country for up to 28 days.

Ultimately if you cannot agree your partner will need to apply for permission to leave the jurisdiction. If you are worried they will simply just go without permission, you can apply for an order prohibiting the children leaving the country as well as the court being able to order the return of the children’s passports. You should also seek advice if you have children staying with you in the UK who are usually resident in another country and you fear for their safety if they return home.

What if you can’t work and can’t pay child or spousal maintenance?

Even if your employer closes the business, reduces your hours or you get sick, we must all follow court orders. However, there could come a time when paying child and or spousal maintenance is not possible for reasons beyond your control. If that time comes you may need to collate documentation to show that you do not have the means to pay.

In that case, early notice to the recipient of child maintenance is essential so that they can reassess their urgent budgeting needs. Contacting the Child Maintenance Service for an emergency reassessment if they are involved may also be required. If you are paying maintenance under a court order and cannot agree a variation you must apply to the court for a variation otherwise you will be in breach of the order and interest can be added to the payments that you miss.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given.

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