The start of this school year has been very different from any year prior. Schools across Massachusetts have developed different plans in light of COVID-19. Schools have responded to the pandemic in a variety of ways, most of which involve “remote learning” at least part time. This has presented unique challenges for all families.
The questions are many: How will I work while ensuring our kids are meeting their milestones academically? Will I have to hire a babysitter or tutor to assist my child because I have to work? Will my child be successful under a fully remote model, or are they better suited to a hybrid or in school plan? Will my child be safe going to school?
These questions are hard enough for intact families, but may present a unique set of challenges and negotiations for families where the parents do not reside together. Parents will need to work together to address a multitude of issues such as:
- Do we prefer hybrid or remote?
- Will the custody arrangement stay the same? Will we change the schedule so that we each are responsible for some of the remote schooling?
- Is one parent better suited for remote learning?
- Will we share in the cost of childcare that is now needed because the schools are closed?
- Will we share in the cost of a tutor if needed?
- Will child support need to be adjusted because of reduced work hours or increased cost of child care?
Tips to resolve these questions:
The situation that has resulted due to the pandemic is unprecedented in Massachusetts and naturally people’s custody and divorce agreements do not offer specific details or alternative plans in such circumstances. However, there is some guidance that can be potentially gleamed from your agreement/judgment.
Legal custody? Do you share legal custody with your ex? If so, it is advisable that you work out issues with your ex regarding remote/hybrid learning to avoid any major disputes in court. If you have sole legal custody, you typically have sole decision making authority regarding your child’s education and can select the model for your child you feel is best. However, you should still keep your ex informed of what decision you are making, particularly to the extent that it impacts on their work schedule or parenting time. Even if you have sole legal custody, your ex typically can still dispute your decision in court..
Pandemic Parenting Plan? While your agreement/judgment probably details your parenting plan, it might make sense to rework the plan for so long as the schools are not fully in session to help relieve some of the childcare and school stress. Does your separation agreement have a different schedule for when the children are out of school for the summer or breaks? This might provide some foundation for altering the schedule as to not place all the burden of online schooling on one parent. Some key considerations are:
- Are both parents working?
- Are both parents able to work from home?
- Does one parent have more flexibility in their schedule?
- Can you rotate which parent is in charge of the schooling?
- Does one or more of your children have special academic needs best suited to working with one parent or the other, or to individual attention from one parent (such that it makes sense for siblings to be cared for by different parents during the school day).
As in all other areas of our lives, the pandemic has required that we exercise creativity and flexibility in order to accomplish what must be done. The pandemic might actually present a unique opportunity for parents to experiment with alternative custody arrangements, while only agreeing to them in the first instance for the duration of the pandemic/alternative school setting.
Child support/cost sharing of care? The Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines are based on an income sharing model, taking into consideration the cost of childcare, health insurance, dental/vision insurance and the parties’ incomes. Loss of income, reduced schedules, increased cost of childcare and extra school help have come along with the pandemic. Accordingly, the present child support amount might not reflect the unique circumstances of the parties today. The parties may be able to directly share some of the cost, such as childcare or tutoring, but they might also want to consider readdressing the issue of child support generally. Guideline worksheets are available here to give you an idea if the child support you receive may need to be increased, or if your obligation should be decreased based on your changes of circumstances.
If we reach an agreement, how do we formalize it?
The Probate and Family Court offers the ability to file a Joint Petition for Modification in order to formalize an agreement that the parties arrive at between themselves. Currently, when a hearing is necessary, they are held by Zoom or by phone.
What if we cannot reach an agreement?
Given that the courts are moving much slower right now due to COVID-19, it might make sense to attempt to mediate your disputes and then formalize the agreement with the Joint Petition for Modification. However, if an agreement cannot be reached via mediation, you may take the matter to the court to decide by filing a Complaint for Modification. Issues regarding children such as child support, parenting time, and legal custody are modifiable in Massachusetts. Likewise, some issues – such as a failure to respect shared legal custody – may need to be addressed through a Contempt action.
If you would like some advice about your specific situation, and assistance in seeking agreement regarding child support, a pandemic parenting plan or legal custody issues such as your child’s model of learning, please feel free to reach out to the experienced family law attorneys at Wilchins Cosentino & Novins at 781-235-5500 or schedule a call here.