Back to school is in full swing—a time designated to scouring the aisles for newly bound notebooks, preparing for the beginning of a new academic year, and nonetheless, embracing the much anticipated cooler temperatures.
But for parents—those particularly in contemplation of or in the process of a divorce— the change in season could render times less exciting. The many joys brought upon by fall could be unfortunately overshadowed by issues pertaining to child custody, among a few others, if not approached accordingly. And when resolved improperly, a plethora of larger problems are at stake—including your child’s academics, school year and happiness.
Suburban Life/Philadelphia Life sat down with the attorneys at Liebmann Family Law to discuss the dos and don’ts of resolving back to school custody issues.
Do custody issues become increasingly complex with back to school?
Jeffrey Liebmann: School often complicates a custody matter—with young children, parents are now going from no school (and often, all day camp), to issues of where the child will go to school—whether or not it will be a private, parochial, public or even home school—transportation, before and after school care and other issues. If parents cannot agree on any of these issues, consultation with an attorney is essential. A child’s return to school often results in other life changes. Often, a return to school signals that change during the year that affords a spouse to begin to seriously contemplate separation and divorce.
Mindy Snyder: The issue which often arises is if the parents’ residences would allow the children to attend two different schools. If there is not an agreement between the parties, the court must decide. Most parents have thought about this toward the end of the prior school year and therefore, there is time to litigate the matter. Interestingly, however, litigation tends to slow down as the school year starts. I believe most parents understand the stress that it would put on a child to begin any type of custody or divorce matter at the beginning of a school year.
What are potential issues regarding custody for either spouse that can arise during the back to school period?
JL: Almost every parent with a custody order will have “joint legal custody” of their child with the other parent. The law defines “legal custody” as the right to major decisions affecting the child including, but not limited to, medical, religious and educational decisions. As a result, parents have an affirmative obligation to discuss major school matters with the other parents such as where to enroll your child and whether or not to switch schools.
David Sowerbutts: Parents who have shared legal custody must consult with each other before making any major decision involving their child’s life, including medical and schoolrelated issues. Parents who have shared legal custody cannot unilaterally advance or hold back a child in school, or put a child in an accelerated program or special needs program … information improves co-parenting. One parent does not have to wait for the other parent to provide all school-related information. It’s important for both parents to contact the school very early in the school year and make arrangements to receive calendars, newsletters, contact information for teachers and dates and times for parent-teacher conferences.
If each parent lives in a different school system, how is it decided after divorce as to which school the child attends?
MS: It is difficult for a court to choose one school over another in the same school district. Further, it is difficult for a judge to compare districts in the same county over which they preside. It is not necessarily automatic than the child will be sent to the school which ranks highest in national and state-wide polls. Rather, the court will look at the specific needs of a child. The court may look at which school has full- or part-time kindergarten, and also, which school would require less before and after school care for the child based on the working hours of the parent. The court looks at the best interest of the child.
JL: School districts require that a child be a resident of the school district. A parent that has primary physical custody of a child (more than one-half of the overnights in a year) will have the ability to enroll the child in the school district where he or she resides. When the parties have equal custody—which, is increasingly becoming the norm— then the parties can enroll the child in either district. Parents almost always have joint legal custody which places on both parents an affirmative obligation to discuss changes in a child’s school. If there is the slightest possibility that there will be a disagreement over school, an attorney should be consulted to leave enough time to get the issue in front of a judge.
How early should parents start working to resolve these issues?
DS: The worst time to try to resolve school related issues is one week before the new semester begins. The best time is before the summer even starts. If parents start early enough, they will have time to go to court if necessary and get the issues resolved before the next semester. Remember, you cannot get a court date quickly. You have to file a petition, and in Bucks County, what follows is a two-step process … from the time you file the petition until the time that you get a hearing, three to five months can easily pass.
JL: It’s never too early to consult an attorney if one foresees a potential problem as it relates to school. If a school issue is inevitable in September, I would recommend beginning the process by March or earlier.
How does your firm go about resolving these issues? What are some factors to consider?
JL: The biggest factor in resolving custody issues at any time is the parents’ ability to cooperate with each other. Depending on the issues, court isn’t always the first or best option. Experienced family law attorneys are often able to settle issues with discussions with the other parent’s counsel. Court should always be a course of last resort.
DS: Remember, when texting about school or any other matters, that your choice of words matter. Insulting or judgmental comments make it much more difficult for either parent to communicate. Good communication is in the best interest of the child, but also makes life easier for the parents as well. Remember, too, that texts are admissible in court proceedings, and can have a great impact on the court, casting a more—or less—favorable light.
You mentioned it’s important for parents to keep a checklist—can you explain?
JL: I have always felt that the most important thing parents can do if they are in a highconflict custody situation or if some form of court intervention is anticipated, is to keep a diary of events pertaining to custody. That diary is invaluable to your attorney and will help refresh your memory prior to court. MS: There are sixteen factors which the court must look at in order to decide a custody matter. All 16 factors are set forth at our firm website at Liebmann Family Law. The overriding goal for the Court is to determine the best interest of the child.
LIEBMANN FAMILY LAW
4 Terry Drive, Suite 4
Newtown, Pa. | (215) 860-8200
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, September, 2017.
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