Most couples want an amicable divorce, meaning that during the process as well as beyond its conclusion they can each play a significant role in their children’s lives. The ability of a couple to divorce amicably depends on their communication about and agreement on both major and minor issues. Therefore, establishing and discussing certain key areas of concern at the outset of the divorce process is important, and can make all the difference in how well their co-parenting relationship works now and years down the road.
When explaining to my clients what issues they should be thinking about as they begin to dissolve their marriage, I often use a top-down approach. That means I start by outlining those concerns that tend to affect the “big picture,” and then working my way down to those smaller points that fall under the auspices of one of the larger categories.
Though “small issues” can prove to be as much of a sticking point as larger ones, I find that clients who know what to expect upfront have the best outcomes. That way they have time to think about what they want and I, in turn, have the information and time I need to get it for them.
Custody is one of the biggest concerns there is during a divorce, and it involves a lot more than where children live, with which parent they live, and for however many days during the year. Implicit in custody matters is decision-making and whether it will be joint or sole. Joint custody doesn’t always mean joint decision-making about every single issue but, rather, only those issues of larger import such as the ones concerning children’s religion, healthcare, education, extracurricular activities, and where they spend their summer. All of this can affect a couples’ ability to co-parent.
In my experience, it’s when deciding these so-called larger issues that tensions rise. Five major issues come to mind, though there may be others that take center-stage and can vary from family to family. Here a few of the obvious ones and some of the potential concerns within each you should be thinking about as you negotiate the co-parenting aspect of your divorce.
- Religion. If religious practices are of interest to one or both parents, Mom and Dad will have a lot to decide. Where parents are of different faiths, they will need to choose what religion or religions the kids will practice, whether and when they will attend religious services or school, and if they will commemorate such religious milestones as a bar mitzvah or confirmation.
- Extracurricular activities. It’s not only a matter of Junior participating in extracurricular activities but which ones he does, how many he is involved with, which parent will get him to and from, whose parenting time it is, and who gets to attend games, matches, and other related events.
- School. Do both parents attend parent-teacher conferences or do parents set up their own? Do each parent receive a copy of their children’s report card? Who chooses the children’s school and makes other educational decisions such as what foreign language the child will study?
- Healthcare. Healthcare covers a lot of ground. Who carries the insurance and who makes decisions regarding coverage? Who is responsible for scheduling children’s doctor appointments? Does each parent have a right to attend those doctor appointments?
- Parenting time. How will the parenting time be allocated? Who transports the kids to and from parenting the “other” parent’s house? Do the kids have enough time with each parent? How close do the parents live to the school (such that transportation to and from is possible for each parent)? Who will have the children on which holidays? Are there family traditions that must be maintained post-divorce (like Christmas day at the grandparents’ house)? Will there be rules for travel, either domestic or international? How are school vacations to be divided?
As you can see, each of these larger issues is comprised of many smaller ones and can extend far beyond the few examples given. But don’t let the size of these tiny points fool you. Many negotiations have fallen apart over seemingly insignificant disputes, sending unwitting couples to court where they file motion after motion and sometimes end up going to trial. Not only is a contentious divorce a costly prospect, it is also gut-wrenching for parents and children alike.
Although it isn’t always possible, the best chance you have for successful co-parenting is to think about possible scenarios before they arise. After you do, the next step is to determine what a deal breaker is for you and what is not, while keeping your children’s well-being at the forefront of your mind. As any matrimonial lawyer will tell you, the happiest divorces turn on children’s happiness.
Joshua Stern is a family law attorney and owner of the Law Offices of Joshua E. Stern. For more information about these and other divorce-related issues, visit www.JESFamilyLaw.com, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.