In divorce and child custody situations, visitation rights are typically granted to the noncustodial parent. These rights allow the parent to spend scheduled time with their child, although they do not have full custody rights. 

Virtual visitation is a relatively new concept that allows noncustodial parents to communicate and visit with their child through virtual means. It utilizes technology in order to keep in contact with their child when it may not be possible to do so physically. An example of this is when the custodial parent is relocating or moving out of the area with the child. Virtual visitation may also be referred to as e-visitation, or e-access.

Although the term virtual visitation generally refers to video chat applications, such as Skype, there are some other means through which visitation may be facilitated. These include:

  • Instant messaging, such as through social media messaging platforms;
  • Text messaging;
  • Email; or
  • Telephone conferences.

Virtual visitation has many benefits and applications, and is rapidly gaining support as a means for noncustodial parents to maintain frequent and meaningful contact with their child. As previously mentioned, virtual visitation may be most beneficial for separated parents that live far from each other, which makes frequent physical visitation difficult. 

Another benefit to virtual visitation is that it can prevent or avoid any further altercations between parents who do not get along, while still allowing for visitation time. Additionally, virtual visitation through email and text messaging provides recorded evidence of interactions, should the need for such evidence ever present itself.

If the court has granted virtual visitation rights to a noncustodial person, the custodial parent is required to provide the noncustodial parent with the child’s virtual contact information, such as their email address or screen name. Both parents are required to notify each other of any changes in contact information, and they must respect the privacy rights of all parties involved. Additionally, the custodial parent cannot interfere during virtual visitation conferences.

Both parents will generally notify each other by email first, in order to designate a time period in which the virtual visitation may take place. Sometimes, the court itself will specify and designate the appropriate times for visitation sessions, in order to better establish boundaries.

When is Virtual Visitation an Option, and When is it Not?

It is important to inquire as to whether your state allows for virtual visitation. If so, the noncustodial parent should ask the judge if it is possible to include virtual visitation rights as part of their visitation schedule. This may require a modification of the custody or visitation order, if there is already a set visitation schedule. 

Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, and Florida have all enacted laws that allow courts to order virtual visitation during custody proceedings. However, virtual visitation is not limited to states that have yet to pass specific legislation concerning the matter, as family courts in some states with no specific virtual visitation legislation have ruled favorably.

Virtual visitation is not intended to totally replace traditional visitation, which is time spent in person between the child and the noncustodial parent. It is meant as a supplement, not a replacement. E-visitation is typically allowed under the following circumstances:

  • When It Is in the Child’s Best Interest: All custody and visitation decisions are made according to what would be best for the child, and virtual visitation is no exception. If the practice will not seriously interfere with the child’s wellbeing and upbringing, virtual visitation may be granted. This is the main determining factor. It could be argued that increased contact with their parent is certainly in the child’s best interest, but that is not always the case;
  • Separations Involving Long Distances: This point has been mentioned several times because it is the most common situation in which virtual visitation may be necessary. If the parents are located in different states or countries, virtual visitation not only increases chances of contact between the parent and child, but also reduces travel expenses and other visitation costs; or
  • Circumstances Requiring Increased Contact: Virtual visitation provides a safe and effective way to encourage increased contact between the child and the noncustodial parent. This could be beneficial in cases where the relationship between the two may be strained. It can also be of benefit when the child feels like the noncustodial parent is not active enough in their life and would like more communication.

Virtual visitation may not be allowed by a judge when it presents a danger to the child. An example of this would be if the noncustodial parent has a history of abuse or illegal activities, or if it has been proven that they are using virtual visitation to manipulate their child. It may also be withheld if the noncustodial parent has a history of sexual abuse, or stalking the child or the custodial parent. The issue with virtual visitation is that it can be easily unsupervised. 

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Virtual Visitation?

As previously discussed, virtual visitation is a relatively new development, and not every state has determined whether they allow for it. However, obtaining these rights may be crucial in circumstances involving long distances, or when the parents involved are not exactly amicable with each other. 

Consulting with an experienced family law attorney will be essential in establishing your eligibility for virtual visitation rights. Additionally, they will be able to assist you in obtaining virtual visitation rights, as well as modifying any pre-existing visitation agreements.