Coparenting for Beginners, Part 2

Posted on Feb 26, 2020 by Katie Carter

On Monday, I talked about an issue in coparenting that I see come up with some frequency: “how much information do I give my child’s father?” It’s often an issue when it comes to things like medical appointments; if dad doesn’t come, is mom obligated to share the details? What does it say if she does or doesn’t, and will it ultimately impact a custody case?

Today, I want to change tacks a little and talk about another related issue that I see come up in custody and visitation cases. The transition between mom’s house and dad’s house can create a lot of tension, especially when transitions are difficult.
A common question I get is, “What happens when he doesn’t respect the routine?” Is dad showing the court that he’s not really fit to handle custody? Obviously, the schedule is in the child’s best interests. …Right?

Man oh man, do I get it. As a mom myself, I am a major proponent of schedules. I don’t like any disruption at all. I’m not one who is just like, “Oh, well, it’s only one day.” That’s not how I feel about it at all. And, actually, I feel like one day of a disrupted nap is one day closer to no nap or something terrible like that!

But… I don’t think it’s fair to say that the court shares my opinion on the importance of schedules, and likely won’t think the same as you do, either. My experience is that, when it comes to custody and visitation, the court accepts that mom and dad will parent differently. And the court believes that it’s important to let each parent actually parent. That doesn’t mean that dad has to parent the way you think he should parent, or do the things that work for you. Sure, if you want to share suggestions back and forth, that’s great. But you don’t have to.

Does that mean I’ll get a miserable, grumpy kid back after dad’s weekends?

Maybe. That’s a complaint I get a lot, even aside from any discussion of what schedule is or is not in a child’s best interests.
Transitioning between mom’s house and dad’s house is kind of complicated, and many kids struggle with the switch. The rules may be different from one house to a next, or they may just be reacting to the tension that they’re feeling between the two of you. It’s not easy, but it’s normal – and the difficulty in the back and forth isn’t, in and of itself, an argument that a different custodial arrangement is in the children’s best interests.

I’m not saying it’s easy or fair, but I think it’s unlikely that you’ll get a ton of sympathy from the judge unless there’s something bigger going on.

It’s really detrimental for my child’s schedule to be ignored.

Though I’d argue that a schedule is important for any child, there are certainly some for whom it’s even more important than others.
In any litigated case, what happens is ultimately down to what you can convince the judge of. You’ll need evidence, and you’ll likely need expert witnesses or others to testify about the unique challenges your child faces.

It’s not just a question of whether it’s better for the child to have a schedule or not, but rather a question of what, developmentally, is appropriate for this particular child, and whether each parent will be able to meet that child’s unique needs. Each child is unique, and each family has specific challenges. I’m not even going to speculate about what it’d take to “win” this argument, but suffice it to say that you’ll definitely want evidence (in the form of school or doctor’s records, for example) as well as some convincing experts to help convince the court that your position is correct.

Keep in mind, too, that even if you don’t convince the judge on your first go round, you can always try again.

What if I don’t win this time, but it’s detrimental to my child to have his schedule ignored and it shows?

It’s possible that you won’t have all the evidence you’ll need to show what could happen to the child without his routine. But, once you’ve experimented for awhile with the custody and visitation arrangement the court orders (perhaps with dad ignoring the schedule), you’ll gain more evidence.

If the child starts to struggle, or other things become problematic, you will at least have that information to show the judge on the next time in court.

Custody, visitation, and child support are always modifiable based on a material change in circumstances, so you child’s struggle could make up part of the material change. You’ll need a change to modify, but a formerly well adjusted child suffering under a change to his routine would likely get the court’s attention.

Likewise, if you lose at the juvenile court level, you can always appeal the decision to the circuit court and get a trial “de novo”. De novo means that your trial will be brand new, and that none of the evidence from the lower court will come up to the circuit court. So, even if you’re not successful at the juvenile court level, or you’re not willing to wait to see whether the new custodial arrangement will have a negative impact on your child, you can file an appeal.

I get it. Routine is important. And it may be worth it to you to try to prove that your child’s routine is so important that it needs to be respected. It’s definitely worth discussing with an attorney to get an idea of whether you might prevail based on the facts in your particular case.

For more information or to schedule a consultation with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.