Over the years, I have learned that it’s common for parents who break up to spend loads of time on a custody agreement, sign it, stick in a drawer, and, quite frankly, do their best to forget it.
I understand that. I did it myself. It’s painful to reduce your life before the break up to a piece of paper that mandates how you will divvy up time with your kids and how you will split money and assets. People usually don’t set out to split up. It’s not what you had planned, and the whole thing is traumatic and difficult. I get it. I really do.
That said, you do need to know what is in your decree/agreement. This is particularly true if your ex/co-parent is difficult or withholding. It’s especially important if your ex is asking for additional items, such as extra days or more money. If you don’t know all your time and current payments, you won’t be able to negotiate.
You need to know your rights, too. For example, most parents have the right to attend ALL school events, whether their kids are with them on those days or not. You also need to understand if you have the right to take your child to the doctor or to a therapist, how educational decisions are made, and so on.
Knowing what you do and do not pay for, knowing the rules regarding your time with your child(ren), and understanding any restrictions become important, because issues are likely to come up.
For instance, I had one client whose ex was always telling him how lucky he was that she picked up the children every day after school. When he wanted to pick them up (and asked her to do so), she would tell him that he couldn’t. When we went back and reviewed his decree, he learned that he was supposed to pick the kids up at school during the school year. He didn’t use that information to pick a fight with her, but he also stopped requesting it. Instead, he let her know that he would be picking the kids up occasionally. Once she realized that he knew that he could, she stopped telling him he couldn’t.
I’ve had a number of situations where clients did not understand the legal language in their decrees regarding custody and parent time. It can be confusing if you are not used to all the different visitation schedules. Parents miss an extra weekend in the summer or an extra day on the weekend during school holidays because they didn’t know they could have it. Their ex didn’t inform them they could.
Sometimes restrictions are included in the decree that were negotiated at mediation or as part of your agreement. For example, not drinking alcohol in the presence of the child or not bringing home someone you are dating to spend the night when the children are there until a certain amount of time has passed. If those restrictions are in your decree, you need to follow them.
It is not unusual for me to ask clients to bring in their decree during sessions. Obviously, it is best if their attorney goes over their decree with them; however, many people no longer retain an attorney after the divorce is finalized. So while I am not an attorney and do not give legal advice, it can help to have a third party like me read through your decree/agreement. For example, I help clients understand how their time with their children works, provide helpful tips for keeping track of it on a calendar and sending a note regarding summer arrangements, and other items.
Knowing what is in your decree is critically important as the new school year starts. My next post will cover how to talk with your child’s teacher and other school officials on sharing information with both you and your ex about your kids. Stay tuned.