As a matrimonial attorney for nearly 34 years, it never ceases to amaze me the little regard people often have for their children during the dissolution process. I say this because, too often, I see mothers and fathers using their children as pawns or as ammunition in the war against their spouse. While the party may believe that he or she is acting in their children’s best interests, in fact, the opposite is true. The long-term impact of divorce on the family and children can be devastating. As the father of two daughters, I have experienced firsthand the challenges of being a parent. It is not easy, no matter the children’s ages, and requires two parents working together. It is possible to continue to present a common front as parents during a divorce if only parties recognize that they have only one shot with their children to get it right and that there are no second chances.
The good news is that most people seem to understand the importance of putting their children’s needs first. Children need the influence of both parents, unless there are compelling mental health issues or other issues that seriously impede the ability of a party to be an appropriate parent, such as alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness. Many times, when such issues are present, the Court will appoint a Guardian ad Litem or an attorney to represent the children’s interests. In addition, psychological and custody evaluations may be ordered to assist the Court in making its final custody ruling if the parties cannot agree on an appropriate arrangement. However, this adds a great deal of expense to the process and compels others to make decisions for the parties’ children. Sometimes a court’s intervention is required; however, most custody issues can and should be resolved between the parents.
In reality, most parties are able to agree to joint legal custody of their children, which requires that they consult and agree on the major decisions affecting their children, including medical treatment, education and religion. The difficulty in reaching an agreement often lies with the parenting schedule and determining each party’s access to the children. This is a greater problem today because often both parents are employed outside the home, sometimes with travel requirements, and both the mother and father want to see their children as much as possible. There are online shared calendar programs available that do make it easier for the parties to work together to arrive at an acceptable schedule. Parties who can be flexible are likely to negotiate a schedule that serves the best interests of the children and allows each parent to go on with their lives. When parents are unwilling to be flexible, or when they allow the financial aspects of their divorce to influence their decisions with respect to parenting, the process can become quite burdensome.
An alternative to litigating custody disputes, parties can work with a trained, professional parenting coordinator. This type of professional will meet with the parents and, on occasion, with the child or children to help draft a parenting plan that will serve the best interests of the children. In some cases, this can be done during one session. Other times it may take several sessions, depending on the issues in dispute. In order to arrive at either a temporary or permanent parenting plan, the parenting coordinator and the parties will generally discuss both the parties’ and children’s regular schedules, activities that the children are involved with, living arrangements, any special needs or medical issues that the children may have and the like. Whether parties’ are successful with a parenting coordinator depends on the complexity of the issues and the willingness of each party to compromise for the sake of their children.
It is important to remember that children are only young for a relatively short period of time. Once children reach their adolescent years, their level of independence grows and the majority of their time becomes occupied with school, friends and extracurricular activities. Shortly after, they are ready to flee the nest and start their own lives. Parents must do right by their children and be flexible with the parenting time that is available while the children are young. When the parties’ can’t work together, it results in Court personnel making decisions for the family that may not actually serve the children’s best interests and could inure to the detriment of the entire family. Parents know their children best and should be the ones shaping their children’s lives and helping them navigate the divorce process as a family.