More and more states and counties are issuing "Shelter In Place" orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 (or the new strain coronavirus). While such orders don't require you to never leave your home, they do put some restraints on your activities. These orders are designed to prevent all unnecessary travel and activity.
A major question for many families now is: "How does Shelter In Place affect my child custody order?"
On the evening of March 24, 2020 the Texas Supreme Court issued its seventh emergency order. This order makes it clear that in Texas, exercising possession and access of your child is an essential activity, as is the travel for any exchanges of the child. Austin's Stay Home -- Work Safe Order does not give a parent the right to fail to surrender or to fail to return a child pursuant to an underlying custody order. Follow your child custody orders as written. If the other party fails to comply, be sure to follow the advice of your attorney and document each instance in which you are denied possession and access of your child. If you do not have an attorney, please contact our office if you need legal assistance.
Exchanges of children per a court ordered custody agreement is considered essential travel. Governments are asking parents to try and come to other agreements that minimize travel, but that's not always possible for every co-parent. As it stands, unless someone in your family is positive for COVID-19 (coronavirus), there is nothing about a Shelter In Place order that will change the way you handle your child custody schedule. Continue to follow your order exactly as it's written. If the other party fails to comply, be sure to follow the advice of your attorney and document each instance in which you are denied possession and access of your child.
However, if you, your child, your child's other parent, or a member of either of your individual households are positive for COVID-19 (coronavirus), or have COVID-19 symptoms, please contact your family law attorney or our office to discuss what this means for your child custody issues.
Dallas County has issued an elaborating statement regarding possession and access, available here. While the court is ultimately saying that current orders will remain unaffected, the statement is important because it lists factors that can determine whether a possession and access order can be modified. It's likely that other counties will follow suit, as having some degree of flexibility during this time is critical.
The State Bar of Texas has also issued the following orders, listed below:
· The first order empowers Texas courts to modify or suspend certain deadlines and procedures, allow parties to participate remotely in proceedings, and take other reasonable steps to avoid exposing court proceedings to the threat of coronavirus.
· The second order applies to and clarifies possession schedules in Suits Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship.
· The third order amended the original order to establish court proceedings that may be conducted away from the court’s usual location with reasonable notice and access to the participants and the public. The change omits reference to the county-venue limitation in the original order.
· The fourth order supplemented the three previous orders, addressing hearings, trials, and deadlines for residential-property evictions.
· The Office of Court Administration has released updated guidance on court procedures for the coronavirus. You can read the guidance here.
Although things are uncertain, there's no reason to panic. Our office is staying as up-to-date as possible and are here to answer your questions. The most important thing anyone can do at this time is cooperate and communicate. If you have questions, feel free to reach out via telephone at (512) 944-3329 or send an email using our contact form below.