Coronavirus, Divorce and Parenting Time

Can I still get divorced?  Do I have to turn my kids over to their other parent in the middle of a pandemic?  Emails and calls have been flooding my office centered primarily on these two questions.  In response to the coronavirus and federal, state and citywide “Shelter in Place” orders, the Tennessee Supreme Court has temporarily suspended in-person hearings in all courts across the state through April 30th, except in special circumstances.  Bad news first:  if you have a contested divorce, you will have to wait for your trial until the courts reopen for in-person hearings, at least right now.  But if your divorce is based on irreconcilable differences, you can get divorced in Davidson and Williamson Counties.  Shelby County has currently suspended the uncontested divorce docket.  Davidson County 4th Circuit Court (Judge Phillip Smith) is hearing motions via teleconference, so if you have a motion filed, your attorney may be able to have it scheduled.  The motions need to be urgent, and the court is deciding which ones to hear on a case by case basis. 

But what about the kids?  Safety is a huge concern for all of us right now, and the Tennessee Supreme Court and Davidson County Family Law Courts have addressed it.  Courts can hold in-person hearings in special circumstances, including to issue an order of protection in abuse cases, to hear evidence from a defendant who has been charged with an ex parte order of protection, and in proceedings related to emergency child custody or visitation orders.  For most of my clients, though, the issue of safety centers around the coronavirus and “Shelter in Place” orders.  In Davidson County, the courts have issued an order requiring parents to follow the school schedule for parenting time, even though school is not in session.  In the even of a “Shelter in Place” order, the primary residential parent shall take immediate physical possession of the child(ren) and shall retain physical possession of the child(ren) until the lock-down is lifted.  Immediate physical possession means within four hours of the lockdown being in place.  Parents may agree on other parenting time arrangements, but it needs to be in writing and signed by both parents.  Unfortunately, Shelby County has not yet issued such an order.  You should check your county court’s website for specific orders regarding parenting time.  The important thing to remember is this:  Don’t use the pandemic as an excuse to keep your children away from your ex.  During times of stress, it’s easy to lash out or react possessively in order to gain some control in a time of intense uncertainty.  Recognize that the other parent is just as worried as you are, and creative options like Skype, Facetime and Zoom can keep the children in close emotional, if not physical, contact.  Also realize that your children are stressed – be an example to them of levelheadedness and compassion.  As Rudyard Kipling wrote in his immortal poem about maturity and character, “If”, “If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on  you….”  As parents, we owe it to our children to assess our motivations as we make decisions affecting their safety during this challenging period.

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