Parents in North Carolina are struggling with many worries during the coronavirus pandemic. For divorced and separated parents, a common issue is how to handle visitation of a child. Clear guidance comes from the state’s laws and courts. The single most important principle is to make your child’s best interest the paramount goal — but sometimes, that’s easier said than done.
At The Twiford Law Firm, our attorneys share all the concerns of every parent, individual, family, and business during this unprecedented, difficult time. We continue to be available to assist existing and new clients. Please feel free to reach out to us by phone or email if we can assist with a legal issue, including those involving family law matters.
Whether you are a custodial parent or a non-custodial parent with visitation rights under an agreement or court order, three common sense guidelines can help parents navigate through visitation issues during this uncertain time. Importantly, these guidelines are in addition to the most critical overall advice to abide by government guidelines and orders for Covid-19 — and stay healthy.
In considering custody matters, North Carolina laws and courts focus on what will best promote the interest and welfare of the child. Our appellate courts interpret this standard as the “polar star” that guides a court’s decision in custody cases. Without question, the overall guiding principle is the welfare and needs of the child.
Parents need to maintain the same focus in resolving visitation issues during Covid-19. Obviously, the circumstances are different in each individual situation. There are no easy answers about what resolution works in every case.
Use common sense and work together to solve problems that arise, while keeping your child’s best interest at the center of discussions. Sometimes, you may even find creative solutions to address the extraordinary situation that we all must adapt to as well as possible.
The North Carolina legislature clearly states the public policy that a strong bond with both parents should be the goal in most custody cases. With regard to visitation, state law (GS 50-13.5(i)) specifically states that:
[P]rior to denying a parent the right to reasonable visitation, [the judge] shall make a written of finding of fact that the parent being denied visitation rights is an unfit person to visit the child or that such visitation rights are not in the best interest of the child.
While state law makes it clear that a parent should have the right to reasonable visitation in most cases, the statute does not define the term “reasonable.” It does require a court to make specific findings of fact before denying visitation rights.
In light of state law, it makes a lot of sense for parents to be reasonable in making decisions about visitation during the coronavirus. That, in turn, implies the need for flexibility about visitation arrangements. In appropriate situations, you should explore alternatives or compromises that parents can agree upon, such as:
Remember that your child needs extra care and attention during this time. Reassurance from both parents is essential in most situations. Even sharing games, books, and movies remotely with a parent can comfort a child and reinforce the parent’s role in the child’s life.
The North Carolina Stay-At-Home Order issued by Governor Roy Cooper, effective at 5 pm on March 30th, classifies “traveling from to and from your residence for child custody reasons or visitation arrangements” as an essential activity. Inclusion of custody and visitation requirements in the Stay-At-Home Order reflects the state’s commitment to ensuring that a child benefits from a relationship with both parents whenever possible, even during these difficult times.
Our previous blog post on Co-Parenting and Parallel Parenting After Divorce provides additional guidance on how divorced or separated parents can work together for the benefit of their child.
Whether you have an agreement or a court order relating to custody and visitation, the law requires you to abide by it. In North Carolina, there are no circumstances that allow you to unilaterally modify the provisions of an agreement or court order. Ignoring a court order or violating an agreement can result in contempt-of-court charges or even criminal charges. In extreme situations, parental kidnapping charges could result.
North Carolina courts currently are largely closed due to the coronavirus (Covid-19). While the courts are addressing emergency situations, resolving disagreements over visitation is best accomplished by parents working together to find mutually-agreeable solutions. In situations where parents are not able to agree, the next step for the parents should be consulting with their attorneys. An experienced family law attorney can help the parents work together for the welfare of the child and find a resolution without resorting to a court action.
Even in situations where involving the court may seem like the only way to resolve issues, remember that an emergency court action consumes precious financial resources and valuable time for everyone concerned. Even more importantly, going to court may also have a significant, adverse impact on a child who is old enough to understand and feel the conflict between the parents.
Our experienced family and domestic law attorneys are available to help you with custody and visitation matters as well as other concerns. With offices in Elizabeth City and Moyock, we serve clients throughout northeastern North Carolina. Call us at 252-338-4151 (Elizabeth City) or 252-435-2811 (Moyock) or complete our online form to schedule an consultation.