When my children started elementary school, we were not getting out the door without chaos. School required us to get organized, so we could all be successful. I realized this new phase of life could use some helpful guidelines so I created a checklist and posted it on the back of our front door. It included questions like, “Did you brush your teeth?” and “Do you have your lunchbox?” It transformed our mornings immediately.
As a parent who is now co-parenting after divorce, you may also need a checklist for this new phase of your life. Even if you have been co-parenting for some time, you may need a checklist of good reminders. Either way, I hope this checklist eliminates chaos for your family and helps you get organized for success.
- Review your Order or Agreement. We tell clients to review their order or agreement containing the terms for child custody often and first whenever any question arises. The terms of the order or agreement should guide all of your parenting decisions including those about your child’s education. If parents do not otherwise agree, the order or agreement controls. This is no. 1 on the list but also generally applies throughout this checklist.
- Determine Who has Major Decision Making Authority. Two types of custody exist – legal and physical custody. Physical custody means who physically has the children or when your parenting time begins and ends. Legal custody means who has decision-making authority for major decisions concerning the children. Major decisions generally include health, education, religion, etc. Day-to-day decisions not otherwise spelled out in your order or agreement should be made by the parent who has physical custody of the children at the time the day-to-day decision needs to be made. For all major decisions, the first step is to check your order/agreement to see if you already agreed on this decision. For example, it may include a specific provision for the school your children are to attend because the parties agreed on this at the time the order/agreement was entered. If not, review the order/agreement to determine who has legal custody or legal decision-making. It may include that one parent has final decision making or that the parents share decision-making.
- Talk to your Ex-Spouse/Co-Parent. Generally, orders/agreements require a full discussion prior to a major decision being made even when one parent has final decision making. Plan to have a face-to-face meeting with your ex-spouse to discuss the decision that needs to be made. If it is about education, be prepared with information that will be helpful to the decision being made. For example, if you are determining what school your child should attend, find out the home schools based on both parents’ residence, other school options including private schools, charter schools and magnets and review websites such as www.greatschools.com to determine how each option has been rated and whether it would be a good fit for your child. Avoid talking to your child about which school he or she may want to attend before having this full discussion with your ex-spouse. The goal is for the parents to make a joint decision or, at least for both parents to fully participate in the discussion, to provide his or her opinions, to share information he or she has gathered and to have been heard. Plan to attend this meeting with two goals in mind — to explain all options and your position and to fully hear the other parent on his or her position. If you cannot agree, and you are the final decision maker, make the best decision you can make based on all information known. If you cannot agree, and you share decision-making, determine whether your order/agreement requires you to meditate or take any other steps to reach a final decision. Hopefully, you can avoid court involvement in your choice of school or other major educational decision for your child. If not, seek the advice of a family law attorney.
- Ensure Each Parent is a Contact/Has Access to Information. Once you have decided on the school your child will be attending, other factors such as ensuring that each parent is listed as a contact will assist with a smooth transition. This contact information should be updated each year with each parent’s contact information. When one parent is responsible for forwarding necessary information to the other parent, problems occur. If this is required, do so in a timely fashion and by using a very clear process. For example, have a specific folder for important documents that you exchange or upload them to a safe online portal.
- Use a Shared Family Calendar. For school, knowing important dates and timelines are keys to success. There are testing dates, holidays, and class schedules. There are deadlines for when homework is routinely due and for special long-term projects. For example, if your child’s teacher has informed you that homework is due on Monday morning every week, set a reminder on a shared family calendar so both parents know. We recommend www.ourfamilywizard.com or Google for shared family calendaring and document sharing. You can keep your child’s medical records, including immunization records, school records and other vital records in a safe, password-protected document portal. Also, both parents have access to the shared calendar so they are aware of all important dates for their children including doctor’s appointments, school deadlines and activities. As most parents can attest, when school starts, everything else in your child’s life — from guitar lessons to soccer games — ramps back up as well and a shared family calendar will help your family know exactly what is going on related to the child.
- Transportation/Childcare. It is important to agree as to who can pick up or drop off your child and to include these individuals in the information you provide to your child’s school. It is also important to agree on childcare after school if childcare is needed. Ensure that the bus transportation is correct if your child will ride the bus. If your school is a home school, then the pick up and drop off will likely be near your residence. If your child will be dropped off at a different location than near your residence, such as your ex-spouse’s residence or after-school care, then you need to contact the transportation department for your child’s school and work through their process for changing the transportation location. Again, you and your ex-spouse need to have an agreement in place about this prior to beginning the process.
- Communications with the School. Although the school should be aware of your situation and may need to have a copy of your order/agreement, ensure all communications with the school are appropriately about the child and not your co-parenting issues. If you and your ex-spouse are having trouble communicating, think about utilizing a parent coordinator who can help you navigate communicating with your ex-spouse in a healthy manner.
- Consider Modifying your Order/Agreement. As kids grow, their needs change. If there has been a substantial change of circumstances concerning your child, your order/agreement may also need to be modified. For example, you may have divorced before your children started school and the custody schedule does not contemplate a school schedule. You may need to revise the custody schedule so that it works now that your child is attending school. Contact a lawyer to ensure this is done correctly.
For more information about the above or if you need legal assistance, visit our website at www.woffordfamilylaw.com or contact our law firm and schedule a consultation with either Hunt or Rebecca Wofford, who are licensed family law attorneys.