How Divorcing Couples Can Avoid Litigation When Kids Go Back To School
By: J. Alex Jacobson
Founder, Mediator — Jacobson Mediation Group
August has arrived, and that means kids are going back to school. School supplies need to be purchased, extra-curricular activities are resuming, and bedtimes will be earlier. This period of transition is rife with opportunities for divorced or divorcing couples to argue. You and your spouse can stave off these disputes in your parenting agreement or, if you are not yet divorced, by addressing these issues through a mediator to reach an agreement as to how they will be handled.
1. Allocate Who is Responsible for School-Related Expenses
Even for children that attend public schools, there are many school-related expenses that will need to be incurred which may include enrollment fees, book fees, required electronic purchases, lunch money, field trip costs, uniform costs, and back to school clothing. Who is responsible for payment of these expenses? Is it the support recipient to pay with the child support he/she receives? Are these expenses separate from the expenses that child support is intended to cover and therefore expenses that should be allocated between the parties? Unless assigned to one party or the other, the only certainties will be that the expenses must be incurred, the parents will argue about who is responsible for payment, and the children will be subject to this tension.
2. Specify Guidelines Regarding the Selection of Extra-Curricular Activities
As children grow, so too do their options to participate in a wide range of extra-curricular activities. Most parents can agree that they would like their children to participate in activities that they enjoy, that enhance their knowledge or skills, or that expose them to something new. However, these activities impact the parenting schedule, they can be expensive, and they may detract from a child’s schoolwork. Defining terms such as when activity options will be discussed, who will handle enrollment, who is responsible for transportation, how many activities per season, and how the costs will be handled will mitigate opportunities for argument regarding these issues.
3. Delineate Transportation Responsibilities
During the course of a week, children will transition between their parent’s homes and to and from school, sports, and social events. No parent wants their child to be the last one at daycare long after it has closed because there was a misunderstanding regarding who was responsible to pick her up. Further, leaving these arrangements for young children to make places an undue burden on them. The answer could be as simple as the parent beginning his parenting time is responsible for picking up the child and arranging for her transportation to and from all activities during his parenting time. This simple answer, however, can clear up a great deal of confusion.
4. Designate How Holidays, Vacation Periods, And Other Days Off From School Will Be Divided
During the course of a school year, children will have days off from school for vacation periods, holidays, teacher in-service days, and snow days. While agreements regularly address vacation periods and popular holidays, they often omit the allocation of other days off from school which results in confusion as to who is responsible for the children on those days and how any child care expenses on those days will be allocated.
Further, the duration of a holiday or a vacation period needs to be clearly defined. For example, is Labor Day the entire weekend beginning Friday until Tuesday morning or is it only the actual day of the holiday? If winter break is being divided between the parents, how is the midpoint of the vacation period defined and what if there are an unequal number of days for the vacation period? Agreeing upon these issues in advance is critical for parents to be able to plan for these occasions in advance without further discussion or debate and allows children to enjoy their time off from school.
5. Appoint a Parenting Coordinator
When all else fails, appoint a parenting coordinator who can assist with resolution of any parenting issues that may arise outside of a courtroom. The role of the parenting coordinator is to monitor court orders, work with parents to resolve any conflicts regarding the operation of a court order, and make recommendations for the resolution of any such conflict.
Communication is the key to avoiding unwanted and unnecessary litigation regarding these issues that arise every year as kids prepare to go back to school. Identifying and discussing these issues in advance and leaving no ambiguities in the resolution of the issues will allow parents to plan accordingly, focus on enjoying the final weeks of summer with their kids, and prepare them for a positive and successful upcoming school year and will allow kids to focus on being kids.