What is Virtual Custody?
You really can do practically anything online, but did you know you can exercise child custody online? North Carolina custody laws allow the court to specifically order visitation by electronic communication. Electronic communication means Facetime, Skype, Google Hangouts, or any other similar video teleconferencing applications, although the law does also include provisions for telephone calls, e-mails, etc. You can read the law here: NCGS 50.2(e).
So does this mean you can set up virtual custody and make your ex disappear into the cloud? No. Electronic communication can be used to supplement physical visitation but it cannot be used as a replacement or substitution for custody or visitation. The availability of face-to-face online visits should never be used as a factor to justify reducing the child’s physical time spent with the other parent.
What is does mean is you now have another useful tool to help your kids have a meaningful relationship with both parents. It really does work, too. Occasionally, my wife has to be away overnight on business, and we always use Facetime so she can read and sing to our son at bedtime. My son also has a much closer relationship with his grandparents (my wife’s parents live a few states away) because of frequent Facetime visits than he would be able to have otherwise.
When deciding whether to order this kind of visitation, the court will consider whether electronic communication is in the best interest of the minor child, whether equipment to communicate by electronic means is available, accessible, and affordable to the parents of the minor child, and any other factor the court deems appropriate.
Just like physical custody orders, the court can also set guidelines for electronic communication. The order can specify what time the Facetime will happen (e.g., every Wednesday at 6:30 PM), how long it has to last, and even how the parents will split any associated costs to facilitate the visits. The court can also require the visits to be supervised, just like physical custody orders.
If you are working out a separation agreement or parenting plan, you can and should include provisions for virtual visitation. Things to consider would be what times to virtually visit, how to divide the costs, what level of internet connection is required (e.g., no dial-up!), whether other people can be present such as new significant others, and what kind of makeup time will be given to a parent if their virtual visits are unavailable for a period of time.
As always, if you have any questions or thoughts about virtual visitation or any other family law related matter, please do not hesitate to contact our office.