School supplies ... check. Uniforms ... check. Lunches packed ... check. Call your lawyer ... wait, what?
The start of school can bring up issues if you are separated or divorced and are attempting to co-parent school-aged children. If you do not have a parenting agreement or custody and support order to help with potential issues, you probably should. If you already have one, it may need to be updated. No matter how great you may be getting along with the other parent, an agreement or order will help ensure that you continue to work well together when it comes to your children’s education. The more specific the agreement or order is, the better. The goal is to provide answers to issues before they become problems and set expectations on both sides.
The custody terms should explain whether the parties will make major decisions jointly, or if one parent will have primary decision-making authority. If the legal custody terms are not clear, the parties can be left in a stalemate about the children's educational needs. Often caregivers start out on the same page about education-related choices. However, people move, child performance changes, or long-term goal planning may begin to differ. Now is the time to begin thinking about issues that may arise and then look at the options for solving them.
Here are some practical considerations.
Who pays for things like school supplies, clothing, lunches and activity fees? The amount of child support is usually determined by application of the child support guidelines for the state where you reside. The guideline child support paid to the primary custodian is intended to assist in the payment of general, ordinary education-related expenses.
However, sometimes children have specific needs which may be out of the norm and considered "extraordinary," and those expenses may require separate consideration beyond a calculation of guideline child support. These might include additional tutoring,private school tuition, or other expenses that might not ordinarily be required.
If the parents share more equal parenting time, the calculation for child support takes into account that both parents spend significant amounts of time with the child. Therefore, under a shared custody child support calculation, it is expected that the parties would be dividing, among other things, expenses like back to school needs. This is not always an equal 50 percent sharing. Having an agreement or order can spell out all of the financial responsibilities of each parent and set expectations as to who pays for what.
Neither parent wants to be left in the dark when it comes to their child’s education. Try to think about what is important to you as a parent and make sure it is included in your Agreement or Order.
Sharing of information
Is it one parent’s responsibility to tell the other parent about the children’s school progress and activities? Should the parents attend parent-teacher conferences together? Whose information is included on the emergency contact list?
These are all examples of frequently asked questions and problems that arise in the absence of an agreement or order. Neither parent wants to be left in the dark when it comes to their child’s education. Try to think about what is important to you as a parent and make sure it is included in your agreement or order.
In the absence of rules for how these things will be addressed, it’s a good idea to make sure both parents are listed as contacts on school emergency forms and other documents. If you feel left out of your children’s education, contact teachers and staff to kindly request they include both parents on communications regarding the children. Let coaches know that both parents would like to be kept informed about scheduling, practices, and changes. This helps to ensure both parents have the same opportunity to review information that impacts the child and allows each parent to participate and provide feedback.
Transportation and activities
Depending on where the children attend school, where after-school activities are located, and how much of a time commitment is involved, deciding upon activities can prove to be a logistical nightmare even when parents aren't separated.
However, when you have two separate households and two parents who might not agree on the activities, it becomes even more complicated. Having an agreement or order in place that specifically addresses who has decision-making authority regarding activities and how transportation should be handled not only between visits, but also related to events, will help alleviate some of this stress once the school year begins. Ideally you'll start planning for this possibility well in advance of the start of the school year so that you either have a formal arrangement in place and your children know what to expect, or you are taking appropriate steps to have the court step in to decide and resolve these issues.
As your children get situated in a new school year, an ideal way to avoid conflict and stress is to make establishing a parenting agreement or order for custody and support — or reviewing the one you already have — a top priority. A family law attorney can assist with the drafting, revising and entry of agreements and orders. Take these steps to make sure your kids’ school year is great!
Patra Sinner is a Board Certified Family Law Specialist and attorney at Sodoma Law, P.C., and has practiced almost exclusively in the area of family law since 2003.
Robin Lalley is a Certified Parenting Coordinator and Certified Collaborative Law Attorney at Sodoma Law, P.C.. She is a member of the North Carolina, Union County, and Mecklenburg County Bar Associations’ Family Law Sections.