How to cope as a separated parent during lockdown: Family lawyers reveal how to manage childcare with your ex and what to do if one of you has symptoms or can’t afford maintenance
- Country on lockdown due to coronavirus can put strain on separated families
- Cara Nuttall of JMW Solicitors suggests minor adjustments to make lives easier
- Says flexible approach should be taken to make sure child looked after properly
- Urges parents to play to strengths with home schooling and be cooperative
- Katherine Res-Pritchard of Vardags says parents must respect social distancing
- Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?
Reaching an agreement on childcare arrangements can prove tricky for many separated parents, especially if they’re on less than cordial terms with their ex.
Occasions like Christmas and birthdays all too often herald anger, frustration and disappointment.
Britain’s current lockdown due to the coronavirus has introduced a whole new set of challenges, with families finding themselves navigating government guidance around self-isolation, travel and social contact.
Children’s travel between two homes is considered as essential travel by the government, even in the current circumstances.
But many previously established routines have likely gone out the window during the pandemic – and at a time when children need calm and stability more than ever, how do you strike the right balance?
Here family lawyers from two of the UK’s top law firms share with FEMAIL their advice and guidance for parents struggling to find their way through.
Reaching an agreement on childcare arrangements can prove tricky for many separated parents, especially if they’re on less than cordial terms with their ex, but Britain’s current lockdown due to the coronavirus has introduced a whole new set of challenges. Pictured: stock image
Cara Nuttall, Partner at JMW Solicitors and an expert in Children Law, urges parents to take a more flexible approach to contact and care arrangements.
‘Whilst formal agreements and orders are often a vital tool for giving certainty of routine for separated parents and children, there can be no doubt that they can never cover all eventualities,’ she said.
‘Unexpected circumstances will always arise, but for many they will be minor, rare and hopefully easily resolved. Courts will always expect parents to exhibit flexibility and common sense when issues arise.
‘Often there can be give and take – a day “lost” can be returned later, and “swaps” can be managed. An expectation of minor adjustments being agreed is often incorporated into a final court order.’
IF YOU DEVELOP SYMPTOMS, BE HONEST
The first most important consideration is what is best – and safest – for the health and wellbeing of both the children and wider family.
Inevitably the country being in lockdown makes it much more difficult for children to transfer between the homes of care of both parents.
Cara Nuttall, Partner at JMW Solicitors and an expert in Children Law
‘The key thing is to be honest with the other parent – if one parent falls ill with symptoms, it may be tempting to conceal it so that contact doesn’t stop, but it’s not in anyone’s interests to risk transmitting the illness,’ Cara warned.
‘This scenario may mean that the child needs to remain with the parent who is exhibiting symptoms, to prevent infection in the other household, or to remain with the other parent to limit the risk of the child catching it.
‘Think carefully about others in both households and be extra cautious if there is anyone high risk. Think, honestly, about whether you are well enough to care for the child and, if not, who is best placed to do so.
‘It may be that if the other parent is high risk or cares for people who are, the child may need to be looked after by another family member.’
Cara urged parents to remember that these are temporary measures. She added that if a parent who usually has sole custody falls ill, it would be fine for the other parent to care for the children so long as there aren’t any welfare or safety issues that would mean it isn’t safe unsupervised.
‘The court will take the view that a flexible approach should be taken to make sure the youngster is looked after properly,’ she said. ‘That’s a call for parents to make – it doesn’t mean that parents who fall ill should feel obligated to divest care to another parent.’
WHAT IF YOU CAN’T PAY MAINTENANCE?
In these increasingly uncertain times, many companies have been forced to make cuts and place employees on furlough, while a huge number of self-employed people are facing a significant drop to their earnings.
DON’T CLING TO OLD ROUTINES
Routine must not trump safety, regardless of what a child arrangements order stipulates, according to Cara.
‘There is no merit – tactically or practically – in insisting on adherence to a routine if it places anyone at risk,’ she said.
‘The court will not enforce adherence to an order over safety and wellbeing and will not endorse any parent doing so. You need to look carefully at the risks to the child, and the key family members on both sides and ensure they are minimised.’
As a result, separated parents who pay maintenance may find themselves struggling to keep up with payments.
‘If the paying parent’s income plummets, it’s inevitable that maintenance will change until it recovers,’ Cara observed.
‘Unfortunately, a lot of families will face this challenge, but for the vast majority it will not be deliberate or anyone’s fault. Be open and honest about what you both have and what you can both afford to make sure your child’s needs are met.
‘Cooperate and look at whether together you can claim any additional state support and, if so, do it in a way that makes most financial sense.
‘It’s going to be making the best of an extremely difficult situation and there is little to be gained by getting angry or trying to issue an application if the money isn’t there.’
She added that there will be some parents who will use the current crisis to try to reduce maintenance without good reason, and in those circumstances it’s worth taking legal advice to see whether there’s anything you can do.
‘But don’t make a bad situation worse by spending money and time chasing cash that isn’t there,’ she said.
Georgina Hamblin, Director of Family Law at Vardags in London, added: ‘There will be no automatic adjustment made to the level of maintenance that the non-resident parent is required to pay under any order or child maintenance assessment by reason of their child or children spending more time with one parent than usual.
Georgina Hamblin, Director of Family Law at Vardags in London
‘However, if agreed, or forced, changes take root over a prolonged period of time, it may well be that applications are made to the CMS or, where appropriate, to the court for an upward variation of child maintenance by the parent who is carrying more of the responsibility than usual. Or indeed a downward variation made by the other parent.’
KEEP IN TOUCH
The President of the Family Division made it clear that in circumstances where a child should be seeing their other parent and can’t, alternative measures must be used to maintain the relationship until face-to-face contact can resume.
Cara suggested: ‘Think about using FaceTime or Zoom calls. Children can be reluctant to sit in front of a screen and chat, but lots of our parents have made it more successful by doing activities like reading stories, playing games and even daily activities like tooth-brushing.
‘This has the added benefit of giving children consistency and still allow them to have visual contact and speak to all members of the family; even if they can’t see them as usual.’
Cara pointed out that children might be worried about elderly relatives whom they can’t see, so having video chats could go a long way towards alleviating that anxiety.
‘It can be hard to make arrangements when parents don’t have a good relationship, especially when it feels like they are in your house and invading your privacy, but it’s important to recognise the benefit to children,’ she added.
‘Not everyone has a relationship with their ex-partner where they can easily communicate, so it’s worth remembering mediators and solicitors can still help to negotiate a suitable arrangement if it’s necessary.’
WORK AS A TEAM – DON’T FIGHT
Cara said: ‘Self-isolation rules can create tricky scenarios, so don’t rule anything out; we have even seen separated parents visiting each other and even temporarily staying in each other’s home to manage this scenario.
‘It’s certainly not an option for everyone but there just might be a creative solution.’
In these difficult times, it’s important to pull together and give reassurance to your children, who might be scared or confused.
‘Reassurance from both parents can have a huge impact,’ Cara said. ‘Likewise, an awareness that parents are fighting may have an even deeper impact than usual.
‘Also, remember if you are cooped up at home, it’s amazing what little ears hear and what they pick up on, so be extra vigilant.
‘The usual routine will almost certainly change and it’s easy to get angry and frustrated when precious time with children is cut short or cancelled, but generating bad feeling and resentment won’t help once the crisis is over.’
PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS WITH HOME-SCHOOLING
The closure of schools has piled further pressure onto parents, many of whom are also juggling full time roles, whether at home or elsewhere.
Cara said it’s important to work together to ensure that educational needs are being met.
‘It may be far more sensible for one parent rather than the other to work from home, or home-school a child,’ she said.
‘We are aware of a number of parents who have agreed a school timetable and curriculum between them for each week, making sure that their child is getting the right balance of work.
Katherine Res Pritchard, Director of Children Law at Vardags
‘This also allows parents to play to their strengths to each cover the topics they are best at.
‘If you feel that a child’s educational needs aren’t being met then it’s important to look at how that can be changed, whether that is by the child’s time with each parent being divided differently, or one parent doing additional lessons remotely.’
WHAT IF YOUR CHILD IS STUCK IN ANOTHER COUNTRY?
Katherine Res Pritchard, Director of Children Law at Vardags, said: ‘If a child is unexpectedly stuck in another country then the parent with whom the child is with should make arrangements for the child to see the other parent via FaceTime or similar on a very regular and frequent basis whilst they are apart.
‘It is important for children that their relationship with both parents is maintained throughout these difficult and uncertain times.’
IF YOU’RE CONCERNED FOR YOUR CHILD’S WELFARE, SEEK HELP
Cara explained that the courts have made it clear if there is genuine concern for the safety and wellbeing of a child in the other household, contact can be suspended – however, the court will expect you to try to resolve the issue before simply stopping contact.
She said: ‘Try to speak to them about your concerns first and if they refuse to follow guidance that places everyone at risk it is likely the court will consider you are justified in suspending contact until that changes, so long as you look to facilitate alternatives, such as FaceTime.’
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