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Working out co-parenting arrangements while going through a divorce is hard in normal circumstances. Adding a pandemic to an already stressful situation can mean lots of additional stress and questions for families.
Kane County Judge Rene Cruz, presiding judge of the Family Division in Kane County, wrote a memo for other judges and family law attorneys outlining guidelines for custody and visitation during the pandemic and court closure.
Cruz said that those families with a parenting agreement already in place with the court system are expected to follow it, and those families who do not yet have one should keep the status quo – whatever that is for a particular family for the time being.
He said that so far, he hasn't seen too many problems with divorced families following orders, and said he felt the memo has been helpful to both family law attorneys and their clients.
"If clients are calling their attorneys, the attorneys can look to the memo and tell the client what to do. They can tell the clients that the order came from a judge, not an opposing attorney," he explained. "There could be criminal contempt liabilities when this is all over if one parent isn't following [the agreement]. If one parents is playing games and willfully not following a court order, they could get in trouble, [which includes] possible jail time. People also shouldn't use coronavirus as an excuse to stop parenting either."
South Elgin-based family law attorney Lisa Nyuli said that the judge's memo has been helpful in providing information to her clients, and said families can still work with a mediator in a virtual session to iron out agreements while courts are closed.
Nyuli reminds parents to put the best interests of the children first, while working around eLearning and the parents' remote work schedules to determine visitation during the stay-at-home order. Virtual visitation may also be a good option, and she encouraged parents to keep in close contact with their children when they are physically separated.
And for parents who are not following scheduled visitation order, Nyuli said there is no legal ramification while the courts are closed, and that it's in the best interest of both parents to come to an agreement on their own. However, she said that once courts open, parents can file a petition to make up for visitation time lost during the shutdown.
"If one parent is being unreasonable, like using this time to withhold visitation, there may be consequences for that. When people are agreeable, they can make arrangements for one parent to have extra time when this is over," she explained. "But judges have been pretty clear in saying that clients shouldn't use this time as an excuse [to withhold visitation]. This isn't a time to be petty. Legal ramifications will be dealt with when the courts reopen."
For parents who have concerns about the kids being exposed to the virus while in the other parent's custody, Nyuli said that those concerns should be taken into account.
"It’s so hard right now because some people are taking the pandemic very seriously and being very cautious, while others are not being cautious at all," she explained. "So you don’t want to tell someone that their concern about the virus isn’t valid. For example, if one parent is a grocery store worker, or maybe there are elderly parents around- it’s so much better if people try to put their differences aside and think of a plan that's best for the kids."
Editor's Note: The Kane County Law Library & Self Help Legal Center will again offer the "Divorce and Family Law Help" program by phone on April 23 from 11 a.m. to noon.
People who are representing themselves in a divorce or have other family law issues in Kane County may call the Law Library at 630-406-7126 to speak to a Kane County Bar Association lawyer for free.