Parenting Time, School Closures, and COVID-19: When is Spring Break? Summer Break?

shelter-in-place-parenting-timeBecause of the coronavirus pandemic, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered the suspension of all in-person K-12 instruction for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. This and other uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 emergency has caused many divorced and unmarried parents to wonder how school closures will affect spring and summer break provisions of their parenting time schedules.

Parenting Time Orders Don’t Automatically Change With the Executive Orders

The governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” mandate and the subsequent school suspension order have many parents confused about exactly when their kids’ spring and summer breaks start, and neither specifically addresses parenting time or custody issues.

As a general rule, your parenting time order remains the same until the court modifies it. Because Michigan’s family courts are effectively closed, the best advice for interpreting your parenting order in the context of the pandemic is to go back to the time the judge signed it. Think about what the court intended when it said “spring break” or “summer break.” Chances are the judge had the standard school schedule in mind and not a unique circumstance like a global pandemic. Very rarely would the parents and court create a parenting time plan to cover such unlikely contingencies.

Guidance from Michigan’s State Courts

During the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, parents should adhere to the same school break dates. According to guidance from the Michigan Supreme Court Administrative Office, “Parenting time should continue on the dates originally scheduled on the school calendar, as if schools had continued to operate.” The Kent County Friend of the Court advises it “will treat spring break as the same block of time it would have been had school shutdowns not occurred.”

Absent any firm direction from the state or most counties, look to the regular school calendar to dictate the dates of spring and summer breaks – the same calendars on which you and the judge relied when establishing your parenting time arrangement. Here are links to parenting time policies from a few West Michigan counties:

Mutual Agreement Between Parents to Change the Parenting Time Order

You may modify a parenting time schedule only if your child’s other parent expressly agrees to all changes. And if you do agree to a modification, put it in writing and both of you sign and date it.

If you cannot commit the changes to paper and sign the document, use alternative means such as an email or text message. The key is that both parents have to agree and memorialize the agreement in some form of writing. Anything less than a totally mutual agreement will require an order from the court, which usually involves lawyers to file the necessary motions.

Changes to Child Support Obligations

No matter the other changes to which you and your child’s parent might agree, be careful of altering child support arrangements.

In Michigan, child support is based on several factors, one of which is the number of overnight visits spent with each parent. A modification of the parenting time schedule may alter that number. Unless you have opted out of Friend of the Court services, one parent is likely paying child support through the Michigan State Disbursement Unit. The “system” expects a child support payment in the court-ordered amount, even if there is an outside agreement by both parents to alter the schedule.

So, what can you do about child support during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions? You have some options:

  • Pay child support at the court-ordered rate knowing this is a short-term pandemic in the larger timeline of your child’s life.
  • Pay child support at the court-ordered rate so that the “system” acknowledges the payment, and work with your children’s other parent to adequately provide for their needs – what child support is intended to do. Your parenting time schedule will go back to the normal routine after this school year.
  • Request a change through the Friend of the Court directly or have an attorney request the modification for you.

Kreis Enderle’s Family Law Practice Group Remains Here to Help

If you have questions about complying with your parenting time order, child support obligations, or violations of an order by your child’s other parent, please contact us. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Kreis Enderle remains open for business and our attorneys are ready to assist you.

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