Image of a teddy bear left on the ground, representing the trials of coparenting in a pandemic or other crisis and how an Indianapolis family law attorney can help families in central Indiana.

Coparenting in Indiana in a Pandemic: What It Really Means

Parenting can be challenging in the best of times. Coparenting from different households presents additional challenges, which increase significantly when you add a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Coparenting in Indiana in a pandemic has had many living those challenges. By anticipating and learning how to resolve differences or concerns, such as those regarding parenting time, that arise during times of crisis, parents can model a positive example for their children and avoid the negative legal consequences that can arise.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Coparenting in Indiana in a Pandemic

When parents live in separate households, their relationships and time with their children are often governed by court orders entered in a divorce or paternity case. Normally, the court orders are written with the parties’ specific circumstances in mind. Until 2020, when the majority of the existing Indiana parenting time orders were entered, no one anticipated a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic or the sweeping effects the pandemic would have on daily life.

In a time of crisis, a parent may feel caught between a rock and a hard place, wanting to do what is best for the child but being subject to a court order that seems counter to what the parent deems is best for the child. For successful coparenting in Indiana in a pandemic or other crisis, parents need to understand how visitation or parenting time orders apply in times of crisis, available options when disputes arise, and the consequences of failing to comply with child-related court orders.

Parenting Time Orders Stand—Even in a Pandemic

Parenting time orders exist to ensure the child has frequent, meaningful, and continuing contact with each parent. The Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines make recommendations for visitation schedules, but the court has discretion to enter an order when the evidence shows it to be appropriate for the circumstances in each case. As a result, parenting time orders vary from one family to the next.

When Governor Eric Holcomb’s shelter-in-place order was in effect in the spring of 2020, the Indiana Supreme Court also issued a March 31, 2020 clarifying order, stating that travel for parenting time was considered “essential business” exempt from the shelter-in-place order. In other words, the shelter-in-place order was not to be used as a reason to deny parenting time.

How Changed Circumstances Affect Parenting Time When Coparenting in Indiana in a Pandemic

Sometimes, circumstances can arise that make strict compliance with a parenting time order seem counter to the best interests of a child. The pandemic is a prime example of that. With instructions to limit exposure to others to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, some parents may use the novel coronavirus pandemic as a basis for denying parenting time, but they would be wrong.

Parenting time orders remain in effect until changed by a subsequent court order. This means that the pandemic itself, without more, is not an adequate reason for failing to comply with the parenting time order. The supreme court’s clarifying order permitted families to informally modify their parenting time orders by written agreement during the shelter-in-place order if their existing parenting time order did not prohibit such modification. Once the shelter-in-place order was lifted, permission to informally modify parenting time orders ended.

What do parents do now when they believe circumstances make the existing order unsafe? They revert to the usual course for modifying a parenting time order: they file a petition to the modify parenting time order. The standards for modifying parenting time remain the same. Under Indiana Code § 31-17-2-21, the parent seeking to modify a parenting time order must show the following:

  • That modification is in the best interests of the child; and
  • That there is a substantial change in circumstances in one of the following factors:
    • The child’s sex and age;
    • The wishes of the child’s parent or parents;
    • The child’s wishes;
    • How the child interacts with a parent or parents, siblings, and other individuals who affect the child’s best interests;
    • The child’s adjustment to home, community, and school;
    • The mental and physical health of the individuals involved;
    • Evidence of domestic or family violence by a parent;
    • Evidence a de facto custodian has cared for the child; and
    • A designation in a power of attorney executed by a parent or a de facto custodian.

The court may consider conduct by the individuals considered in custody and parenting time determinations to be a valid basis for modifying a parenting time order if such conduct could put the child at risk. However, courts are unlikely to welcome an onslaught of petitions to modify parenting time merely because parents have differing opinions on how to keep their child physically safe and healthy during the pandemic or at any other time.

Resolving Indiana Parenting Time Disputes When Coparenting in Indiana in a Pandemic

When one parent believes the current parenting time order needs to be changed, the parties do not need to race back to court. Unless an existing order indicates otherwise, parents are free to negotiate a new parenting time schedule and submit it to the court for approval. If either parent is represented by an attorney, they should consult the attorneys hired for permission to negotiate directly.

If negotiating directly between parties or their counsel is ineffective, the parties may attempt to negotiate a modification of the parenting time order using a form of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation. Regardless of the method used, the parties must still obtain court approval of negotiated changes to the parenting time order before the agreement will become effective.

Consequences of Indiana Parenting Time Violations

When one parent unilaterally decides to change visitation in a way that does not comply with the existing parenting time order, the other parent may bring that violation to the court’s attention. If that happens, the court may order a hearing for each party to present evidence on the Indiana visitation order violations.

The consequences of Indiana parenting time violations can be significant. If, after a hearing, the court finds that one parent has failed to comply with the existing parenting time order, the court may reprimand or admonish the parent in open court. In more severe cases, the court may enter an injunction or similar order directing the non-compliant party to follow the existing parenting time order. In some cases, the court may even enter an order finding the non-compliant parent in contempt of court for willfully failing to comply with the parenting time order. In such cases, the court may order a parent found in contempt to pay the other parent’s attorney’s fees or even order the parent to a period of incarceration.

If you think applying to the court for help is the only way to deal with problems that arise in coparenting in Indiana in a pandemic, remember that the courts ceased normal operations for a period of time in early 2020. Upon reopening, new procedures, safety measures and the downtime experienced during the shelter-in-place orders have congested court calendars. Court dates may be scheduled farther out than you would like for your case, so resolving Indiana parenting time disputes using other means could help you reach a solution sooner.

How an Indianapolis Family Law Attorney Can Help with Coparenting in Indiana in a Pandemic

A crisis like the pandemic—or even circumstances affecting only your family—can make one or both parents believe the current parenting time order needs to be modified. If you’re facing parenting time or related disputes while coparenting in Indiana in a pandemic or other crisis, make sure you have all of the information available, and consult an Indianapolis family law attorney experienced in navigating Indiana parenting time disputes. In central Indiana, you’ll find that attorney at Camden & Meridew, P.C. Our family law attorneys are ready to help explore options for issues that arise when coparenting in a pandemic or other crisis. For a consultation on how we can help, call 317-770-000 or complete our online contact form.