PARENTING PLAN MODIFICATIONS PROMPTED BY COVID-19

This Week’s Blog by Christopher J. DeMattie and Jaime S. Dursht, Westport and Greenwich attorneys at Broder & Orland LLC.

Parents around Fairfield County are grappling over how best to limit the daily risk of COVID-19 exposure, and for many, the social distancing and isolation measures pose logistical challenges to parenting access schedules as well as disputes over what safety practices protect the best interests of the children.

Since the law requires that custody orders be followed unless or until they are legally modified, issues arise as to how to avoid possible violations as well as how to accomplish legal modification of parenting plans, especially given the recent court closures and restrictions.

What is the Procedure to Modify my Parenting Plan?

Assuming your matter is post-judgment (a final judgment has entered), the process requires filing an Application with the Clerk. The Application must include the: (1) current Order, (2) grounds or the allegations being made to assert modification, and (3) the proposed change. Once filed, the Clerk will issue an Order assigning a specific date and time for hearing on the matter, which must then be served upon your former spouse within a specified time frame. Once service of process is completed, the action is initiated, and you and your former spouse must appear in Court on the assigned date.

Presently, until at least April 30, 2020, the Courts are limiting who may physically enter the Courthouse to those required to appear on specific emergency family matters. However, online access to filing Motions is available through the judicial e-File system, which allows for post-judgment filing when the underlying case was initiated in 2015 (when the e-File system went into effect) or later, and by facsimile filing for earlier cases.

Before the impact of COVID-19, the filing process and date assignment by the Clerk could take a day or so, however, due to the limited staff and hours at the Courthouse, we anticipate this taking much longer. Thus, if you are contemplating initiating a post-judgment Modification, it is advisable to “start the clock” running as soon as practicable.

What are the Standards for Modifications to Legal and/or Physical Custody?

The legal standard differs for modifications to legal custody versus modification to physical custody. Legal custody refers to parental decision making on matters of education, health, and religious upbringing. Physical custody refers to the schedule of parenting access or visitation.

If a party is seeking to modify only legal custody or both legal and physical custody, the modification must be based on either (1) a material change in circumstances which alters the Court’s finding of the best interests of the child, or (2) a determination that the current custody order was not based upon the best interests of the child when it was entered.

The legal standard for modification of physical custody, e.g., parenting access / visitation schedule, is that of the best interests of the child(ren). A party is not required to show a material change in circumstances.

In either case, the evidentiary burden of proof at a hearing is that of a preponderance of the evidence, which is “more likely than not.” Thus, the moving party has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a change in either the legal and/or physical custody would be in the best interest of the child(ren).

What Factors will the Court Consider when Modifying Custody and/or a Parenting Plan?

In determining the best interests of the child(ren) a Court will consider many factors, including those set forth in Conn.Gen.Stat. 46b-56(c): (1) The temperament and developmental needs of the child; (2) the capacity and the disposition of the parents to understand the needs of the child; (3) any relevant and material information obtained from the child; (4) the wishes of the child’s parents as to custody; (5) the past and current interaction and relationship of the child with each parent, the child’s siblings and any other person who may significantly affect the best interests of the child; (6) the willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage such continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent as is appropriate, including compliance with any court orders; (7) any manipulation by or coercive behavior of the parties in an effort to involve the child in the parents’ dispute; (8) the ability of each parent to be actively involved in the life of the child; (9) the child’s adjustment to his or her home, school and community environments; (10) the length of time that the child has lived in a stable and satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity in such environment, provided the court may consider favorably a parent who voluntarily leaves the child family home pendente lite in order to alleviate stress in the household; (11) the stability of the child’s existing or proposed residences, or both; (12) the mental and physical health of all individuals involved, except that a disability of a proposed custodial parent or other party, in and of itself, shall not be determinative of custody unless the proposed custodial arrangement is not in the best interests of the child; (13) the child’s cultural background; (14) the effect on the child of the actions of an abuser, if any domestic violence has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual or the child; (15) whether the child or a sibling of the child has been abused or neglected, as defined respectively in section 46b-120; and (16) whether the party satisfactorily completed participation in a parent education program established pursuant to section 46b-69b.

Do I Risk a Charge of Contempt if I Do Not Follow the Parenting Plan?

A finding of contempt requires clear and convincing proof that (1) a clear order exists; (2) a party had the ability to comply; and (3) the party willfully did not comply. The purpose of a Motion for Contempt in the context of custody is to coerce compliance and to obtain remedial relief in the form of make-up time or possibly monetary fines.

For those parents who find themselves in precarious circumstances due to COVID-19, we advise you to do your best to adhere to your parenting plan obligations. If, for whatever reason, you find yourself unable to do that, then document your circumstances in real-time to preserve a record.

What Steps Can I Take to Reach a Temporary Agreement?

We encourage parents to attempt reasonable temporary arrangements with one another, and we are available to assist with negotiating and formalizing agreements to the extent necessary. Most Separation Agreements contain Modification Clauses that require any modification to be in writing and executed with the same formality as the Separation Agreement itself to be valid, and this applies to the terms of Custody Agreements.

Our attorneys at BRODER & ORLAND LLC, with offices in Westport and Greenwich, are very experienced with the issues of custody and parenting plan modifications. We remain available to assist you throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and thereafter, including the negotiating and formalization of temporary custody agreements.