A judge’s favorite line when custody is an issue is some variation of the following: No one is better equipped to make decisions about your children than their two parents, and certainly not the judge who does not know your family from the next family in line. They are not wrong, and they will do whatever they can to have parents even in the most acrimonious of cases resolve custody issues to avoid tens of thousands of dollars, and months upon months, on custody evaluations and a custody trial. Of course this is not always possible, but the requirements for alternative dispute resolution start almost at day one after filing the divorce complaint.
Whether you are married and commencing the divorce process (dissolution docket), share a child in common but have never been married, or are simply seeking to enter a custody arrangement but not get divorced (non-dissolution docket), the Court Rules require that parents attend Custody and Parenting Time Mediation at the outset of litigation. This is a free session held at the courthouse, without attorneys present, during which a courthouse mediator assists parents in reaching an agreed upon custody arrangement and parenting time schedule. If successful, the mediator will draft an order for review. Even when the court is not involved, counsel will often attempt to resolve custody and parenting time issues prior to finances. This prioritization is designed to ensure that your children are not stuck wondering which parent they will be with at what time, and the parents are not incentivized to get a child on his/her side. The schedule also helps the parents understand what free time they have and/or how they may be able to manage their work schedule.
The agreement, order or judgment fixing custody and parenting time is generally the most important document entered in your matter – it provides guidelines to live by for years until the emancipation of your children, absent any substantial change in circumstances along the way. Given its importance, the agreement, order or judgment should hit all the points that are essential to you… this can save you future head and heartaches for having to return to court or other forms of dispute resolution over aspects that may be missed. They say that when an agreement is reached, each party will be a little happy and a little sad – that’s the nature of compromise – but the feeling you want to avoid is “oops… forgot about that” (especially when you do not have a co-parent who will readily amend the agreement)!
When our clients are preparing to resolve custody, whether in private or court ordered mediation, we prepare them with a Custody and Parenting Time Plan – essentially their wish lists. This plan is designed to remind clients what they want to address, rather than have a cookie cutter agreement or order prepared. Some courts require the submission of this plan prior to the mandatory mediation session, but not all do.
Whether you are attempting to resolve these issues in the above-described mediation session, or simply with your co-parent via discussion, with attorneys, in private mediation, etc., or even as part of a global divorce resolution, here is a checklist that we recommend you review before creating your wish list:
- Legal custody with time periods for joint decisions. Legal custody is decision making authority about your child(ren)’s education, health, safety and general welfare. In most cases, this is a joint decision making authority. Consider including the requirement to discuss such issues with each other and even a time period by which the parents have to advise each other of new developments, and when responses are due for certain requests, i.e.: making a medical appointment or enrollment in a desired activity. The sharing of such expenses are generally dealt with in the final divorce agreement or judgment. Always consider adding into the agreement requirements for mutual respect, cooperation with facilitating the schedule and the child(ren)’s love for the other parent, and restraints on involving your child(ren) in the litigation.
- Commencement date for the parenting time schedule selected. Here, consider being clear as to the commencement date depending on the case. If the schedule is, for example, alternating weekends and then each parent has two days during the week, consider not just adding the date of the first weekend. This can lead to confusion as to when the weekdays start if the agreement is reached mid-week. If you are silent on when the schedule commences, then the default will be the date of the agreement.
- Location for pick up and drop off. This will also help define who does the driving – an important issue in recent a blog post by Sandra C. Fava, Esq., just last week. More and more we are seeing and creating schedules with pick up and drop off at the child’s school, camp and/or extracurricular activity. This will not always be the case as some alternating weekend schedules end on Sunday instead of Monday, some parents do not have any weeknight overnights, etc. This leads to the next point…
- …Alternate location when the initial location is not available. For example, if pick up is at school, camp and/or extracurricular activity, build in the location for when such events are not in session.
- Time for pick up and drop off… In some cases, consider being specific on what time the other parent is expected to arrive and/or drop off your child(ren). You can even build in a provision about being late if you are dealing with a co-parent who often is, such as a required text message when either parent is going to be more than X minutes late.
- …You guessed it – add in the alternate time if the event is not in session (i.e.: pick up after school or 3 p.m. when school is not in session). Seems simple but the alternates are easy to forget and can lead to stressful situations!
- Driving to activities and appointments. Consider including a provision indicating that the parent exercising parenting time is required to drive the child(ren) to/from any and all activities and appointments held during such time. It doesn’t hurt to consider including that each parent can attend such appointments and activities regardless of the parenting time schedule. This may differ in certain circumstances and acrimony level. You can even build in who sits on home/away bleachers.
- Right of first refusal, meaning when the parent scheduled to exercise parenting time is not available for a defined period (i.e.: certain number of hours or overnight), then the other parent has the “first right” to have that time with their child. A third party cannot be contacted to “babysit” unless the other parent does not elect to use such right to the time. Here, consider building in time periods required for the parent to offer this right, and the other parent to respond.
- Holiday schedule. Sometimes this schedule will be an addendum added at a later date if you cannot agree at the time that you agree upon the regular schedule. However, if you can make the first agreement all-inclusive, you will not have to revisit the issue. You want to include the location and times for pick up and drop off here, as well.
- Defined amount of vacation parenting time. The amount of time usually depends upon the child(ren)’s age(s), but also consider including whether the weeks can be consecutive. Other options include adding a time period under which you have to provide notice to the other parent of your desired weeks for vacation time, priority on who selects the time first each year, language regarding taking the children out of the state or country, passport-related cooperation, and even whether vacation has to even include one parent traveling for it to actually be considered vacation parenting time.
- Alternate arrangements when the schedule results in one parent having three consecutive weekends. Typically, holiday and vacation parenting time will trump regular parenting time, but it is something to discuss if it is what you want. If it’s on your wish list, include a provision indicating that neither parent shall have three consecutive weekends and, if the holiday/vacation time would result in such a schedule, then the first or last weekend of the block will be switched so that each parent has two weekends in a row. This avoids having to “re-alternate” weekends thereafter.
- Amount of contact that each parent has with the child(ren) when the other parent is exercising parenting time (i.e.: telephone, Skype, FaceTime, etc.). Depending upon your child(ren)’s age, this may just be reasonable time as desired. However, if you are concerned about having your time usurped by the other parent continually contacting your child(ren) during your time, you may want to include a once or twice per day allotment. If your child is too young to use the device alone and you need to coordinate the contact, then you should consider building in a time, such as morning and evening if that works for everyone’s schedule… Again, build in what happens when the agreed upon time is unavailable on a given day.
- Radius clause. This can be a tricky one. Custody and parenting time in New Jersey is always modifiable because it is based upon the best interests of your children and that may differ over time with a substantial change in circumstances. Often, these schedules are reached when everyone is still local to each other or even under the same roof, but that may not always be the case. It’s important to consider how moving a certain distance away from the other parent may impact your child(ren)’s best interests. In other words, how far is too far? That’s a personal question, considering many factors, including the age of the child(ren) and frequency of parenting time transfers. For example, if you share equal parenting time with pick up and drop off at school, then what is the maximum commute your child(ren) should have on a school day? How will this impact activities after school or even a job?
In the recent unpublished decision of B.G. v. E.G., the Appellate Division vacated a provision within the trial court’s Order requiring the parents to live within fifteen miles of each other. The case was unique case in that one parent was designated as the parent of primary residence (“PPR”) for two children and the other parent was designated as PPR for their third child.
The radius clause was entered following a divorce trial during which a custody expert testified that the parties should live within thirty minutes of each other because “it would be ‘optimal if the children did not change their friends, their locations, their habits.’” Pursuant to the decision, the court also considered their children’s testimony, daily exposure to both parents and extensive time the parents spent with their children. In vacating the radius clause, the Appellate Division opined that the geographic location was not supported by substantial credible evidence. Specifically, it was based only on the expert’s subjective opinion – no testimony was offered about geographic location, there was no finding that such limitation was in the children’s best interests, and other methods of maintaining contact were not explored. Notably, the Appellate Division specifically opined that a radius clause did not restrict the objecting parent’s “right to travel” by way of a constitutional law argument. Given that the objecting parent did not present other constitutional arguments, the Appellate Division did not further delve into the constitutionality of the radius clause.
Thus, the decision infers that although the radius clause here was not supported by enough evidence presented at trial, a radius clause in another matter can be upheld as constitutionally valid if the constitutional argument presented is a restriction on the right to travel. However, perhaps another constitutional argument may prevail. I would not be surprised if this issue arises again with more and more shared parenting time arrangements that require a closer geographic proximity… keep an eye out!
So, what is the takeaway? Keep this checklist for your wish list… from decision making authority to the location that works best for the schedule, there is a lot to think about. It is natural to forget a few things when you are in a mediation session, having a conversation or even preparing for litigation. Make your wish list. Save your wish list. Craft your wish list to fit your family if the cookie cutter case is not for you. After all, you are creating this guideline to save yourself time, money and stress in the future… why not ask for what you want?