When a family is split by divorce, any life transition presents potential pitfalls, and starting a new school year is no different. The kids may be enrolling in a new school, trying out a new after-school activity, or simply need to submit documentation like permission slips or immunization records. For example, in Montgomery County Maryland, the proof of authority required by the public school system may require both parents to participate. Coordinating and cooperating with your ex is often a major challenge, so it is worth being prepared to face these issues head-on with information about your rights and obligations.
Legal Custody Makes a Difference
Custody is divided into two concepts: physical and legal. Physical custody covers where the child lives. Legal custody covers the right to make major decisions about the child concerning education, religion, health and welfare. Even when a parent has partial or no physical custody, they may retain legal custody and have the right of approval over important decisions about the child. Legal custodial rights mean that back to school issues may require buy-in from the other parent. This translates into an agreement, joint signatures, and possibly some level of engagement by both parents.
The parent with primary physical custody is likely to have the most information about upcoming issues. Permission slips, doctor’s visits, pick-up person, and many other activities and authorizations may require both parents to sign off. Make a list – or a spreadsheet – with the issue, the needed parental action and the deadline to share with the other parent so that everyone is aware of their obligations. Look into the school policies about non-participation by one parent in the process, and also look into whether a school is obligated to provide dual notices to parents who don’t live together. For example, will a child be unable to join the ski club if both parents don’t sign, and are there exceptions? Before disappointing a child or running up against bureaucracy, it is worth knowing what rules might implicate cooperation.
Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Unless there is an immediate danger, it is a good idea to have a channel to communicate with the other parent that is easy to track and easy to limit. Getting a second email account that is exclusively for parent communications is one way to make sure nothing gets lost. There are also many parenting apps available that make it easier for parents to share a common calendar and to communicate in a less hostile manner. It is important to obtain cooperation, but it is also important to create a record. If the other parent is non-responsive, an email trail or the messages on the parenting app will help establish an evidentiary basis to change the custodial rights if that becomes necessary.
Changes in a child’s schedule can impact physical custody as well. If the change-over in physical custody usually occurs at a specific time and day of the week, and the child has activities that conflict, it’s important to be sure that both parents figure out a new transfer arrangement. New activities might mean additional transportation burdens, which need to be negotiated between the parents who share physical custody. And a new school year has new vacation days that may impact shared custody. While a custody agreement might have spelled out basic parameters, or provided for resolution of disputes, changes like going back to school may require several adjustments that can be made without the help of a lawyer. However, if the parents cannot come to a joint agreement, mediators and attorneys may be needed.
Work With an Attorney
Whether you are in the middle of a divorce or custody dispute, you are anticipating one in the near future, or you have already gotten a custody agreement that is no longer working for you, an experienced family law attorney can help identify issues and strategize solutions. It’s not always possible to know every eventuality, but an attorney can help craft language that allows the parties to adapt to the new situation with less conflict because the parameters are spelled out.