With the first nip of fall in the air and the first week of the new school year behind us, kids are gearing up to start extra-curricular activities and various school events. While many children can’t wait to start hockey or gymnastics, and are eagerly looking forward to the field trip to the museum, for separated parents, navigating what events you can or should attend can be tricky.
The first thing to consider is whether you have a separation agreement or court order that sets out if both parents will attend particular events, or that determines how such matters will be decided. You should follow the terms contained therein. If you do not have such documents to guide you, the general rule is that both parents may attend extra-curricular or school-related events.
Generally speaking, only the parent who has access at that time will attend scheduled extra-curricular activities. For example, if Mom has the kids every Monday evening when swimming lessons are scheduled, usually only Mom will take the kids to the lesson. Unless a court order, separation agreement, or the location’s rules prevent it, however, Dad is also free to attend Monday night swimming lessons. Dad would not, however, be allowed to get extra time with the kids after swimming is over, as this would clearly be Mom’s parenting time.
Where the parenting schedule has the kids at different houses on a given day of the week – for example, if one Monday they’re with Mom, and the second Monday they’re with Dad – to the extent possible, Mom and Dad should work together to devise a schedule that works. If one parent will not agree to a particular activity, it may be helpful to try to get an understanding of the reasons behind their refusal (though this can be difficult in a high-conflict situation). If it is because their schedule will not allow it, perhaps arrangements can be made for the other parent to take them to and from the activity. If, however, they do not agree with the child participating in the activity, or cannot afford it, and the parties cannot agree, the court will use the “best interests of the child” test to resolve the issue. It may be that the parenting schedule will be adjusted, one parent will be ordered to contribute to the expense of the extra-curricular activity, or a parent will be ordered to take a child to the activity.
With respect to one-off events like parent-teacher meetings, talent shows, or class field trips, again, both parents are allowed to attend. While it may be easy enough to sit separately for performances, where it’s a high-conflict situation, it may not be ideal for both parents to attend an event that requires proximity. At teacher meetings, for example, the parties could try to arrange two shorter meetings with the teacher within the allotted time, or set a rotating schedule for who gets to attend. If the conflict will impact the child – for example if parents would fight or argue while chaperoning a field trip – a court would determine if or how attendance at such events should be divided between the parents, again, considering the best interests of the child. Constant disagreement over such events could result in the court awarding one parent sole custody, as this could be evidence of an inability to co-parent.
To the extent possible, the parties should try to work these issues out between themselves. While we’ve referenced court involvement throughout this post, actually getting before a judge can take months, and often the pressing issue – a session of lessons or a particular event – will be long past by the time you can get judicial input.
Working out a parenting schedule in and of itself can be a challenge, and it becomes even more complicated when busy school and extracurricular schedules come into play. While negotiating a separation agreement can be a lengthy process, having one in place will help to set expectations regarding parental attendance at such events, and address problems before they arise.
Contact one of Nelligan O’Brien Payne’s Family Law lawyers to discuss separation agreements and parenting schedules in more detail.