I can’t believe that we are already in our second season of our podcast, “One Day You’ll Thank Me”. Anna and I started off the season talking with Jennifer Moore, a board certified specialist in family law, located in Charlotte, NC. Jennifer came on our podcast to share some information for primary caregivers on how to best protect the children in the early stages of separation and divorce.
We begin with the question- what should primary caregivers consider early on in the process, prior to separation? We dive into how typically parents will have 50/50 shared custody.
Since Jennifer practices In Mecklenburg County NC she discussed the rules that apply there. She says that in the eyes of the court there is a presumption of equal physical custody. As you go into smaller counties around the area, there isn’t the same presumption. It is a good rule of thumb to have in your head though as you are getting prepared to separate, that it could very well be that each parent gets equal time with the children.
Again, it is not always the case. So what instances is 50/50 custody not necessarily in the best interest of the children?
These are situations when there is a parent struggling with addiction, there is physical abuse going on, problems with school attendance, one parent is a stay at home parent and the other parent travels and works all the time. All instances that a judge would consider in the process. In the situation with parents working or not around a lot, it can be more difficult. What Jennifer sees often is that the other parent changes their tune and wants to be more involved or doesn’t want to give up the 50/50 custody because the amount of overnights affects child support. If one parent has the kids more than the other, they may have to pay extra support.
You may also start to see the other parent that truly become significantly more involved after separation (more than they had during the marriage). For the moms that I work with, at times they will feel betrayed because she feels that he wasn’t a good dad and doing homework before, now all of a sudden he is involved. It is frustrating for them, and they are not trusting his motivation, but I have to reassure them, this is a good problem to have in the best interest of the kids.
Jennifer sees the same types of scenarios; the primary caregivers struggle because the other parent is now coming in and doing a good job now and is super involved and the primary giver has almost lost their identity. Often they are left with this hole. They had been handling all the parenting details so long, now they need to find a new identity, face this and change their whole life when they when maybe they were happy with the way things were. It can be a challenging situation.
When it comes to custody and decision making an array of defenses come up and a million reasons come into play as to why the other parent should not have custody. For example, how the parent feeds the kids, that they do not buy the best types of sneakers, that they don’t agree on extracurricular activities. Be prepared for any kind of allegation that serves the other parent.
What really can be detrimental and brings me a lot of sympathy is when a doctor prescribes a medication for ADHD or strong symptoms of anxiety and depression and one parent does not comply with the doctors recommendation. If the physician doesn’t give a strong enough recommendation with the order and the parents don’t agree, and the kid gets medication on certain days and not another, or is getting a more significant medication and it is wreaking havoc on the child's brain chemistry if parents can't get on the same page. Parents are undermining the process and really harming the child. The same goes for any type of health situations and challenges.
Jennifer notes that if there is a health decision in question and the parents are not agreeing, more often than not the judge is going to err on the side of caution, if it’s not going to hurt and it may help, so...why not?
What can parents do to protect their kids in the process of separation or divorce?
In terms of planning, first and foremost they need to make sure they are prepared financially. Often the primary caregiver parent may not be the breadwinning parent and may not have access or any control over financial accounts. So it is important to know what you have, log into accounts and be aware. What they also need to be aware of and keep in mind is getting their own advocate/attorney and everything associated with that. It is important to look into costs of finding another home in your kids school district, will you need a 2 or 3 bedroom apartment, knowing what the next move is financially and preparing yourself, maybe getting a credit card with a decent limit on it, having a cushion, talking to family and friends to get you started so you can either meet the other parent where they are. You want to prepare for what is coming or at least plan further down the road to take away uncertainty and the fears around it.
In dire situations it may be taking half of the cash you may have in your accounts and available to you. Often women are not aware of the financial standing in the household. It is in your best interest to make it your business to find out where things like your investments and 401k’s are.
A question that I get often from moms and dads is when the household is split, what if they are not able to provide the same type of living circumstances as the family is used to, is it going to be a detriment and is this something parents should be concerned about?
Jennifer reassures us that she has never seen a knock against the party that moves out. What she does see oftentimes, is the parent that stays in the house (especially with older kids) uses that against the other parent. They want to stay in “their own home”. Sometimes the kids will want to stay in the neighborhood or the home with the pool, judges can see through that and are keyed in and not easily fooled, not something very persuasive.
What should you consider and how early do you seek out an attorney?
Start the process as soon as possible.
Meet with at least one attorney to get educated on what you are about to face. The discussion is confidential and you’ll be able to get answers to any questions that you have. The sooner you get that info the better.
Quite often people say that they want a real “bull dog” of a lawyer to go after their spouse. While certain situations may call for that type of litigation, there are other options or combinations of styles. You should really decide what type of relationship you want with your co-parent first before choosing.
1) Bulldog - all attorneys do the same things and have the same options available to us, but this category of attorney wants to fight everything and be mean and wants to go to court for every issue. It generally doesn't serve their client that well. It can really hurt the co-parenting relationship after fighting over everything little.
2) Collaborative law - these are the opposite type, that do not go to court, they work toward resolution by looking at the desires and needs of all the parties as much as possible, using mediation or other collaborative options.
3) Combination (Jennifer’s approach)- this is in between the two, I practice in collaborative law, I go to court all the time, the way I approach each case is...who is my client? what is their desire? what do they need? and how can I best achieve that?
“...and sometimes that is being that bull dog in a courtroom,
and listen I love doing it
But sometimes it’s doing things more collaboratively, in a mediation setting even, to work out as much as we can in a way that preserves a good co-parenting relationship…”
Difference between a parent coordinator and a guardian ad litem?
Parent coordinator is typically either a lawyer or mental health professional. They need to be trained as a parent coordinator on how to work with different personality types to help parents come to agreement. Or even make decisions for the parents if they cannot agree. It is a great option for high conflict custody cases. There is an hourly cost involved (less than an attorney fees), they can be split between parents.
Guardian Ad Litem is someone appointed to be an advocate for the best interest of the child, going to court to be a voice of the child. Focuses on the child's needs and desires and best interest. Reporting that all back to the court.
Anna (our teen co-host) asked a great question...
Is the judge's decision making influenced by the kids opinion?
Yes, possibly. It really depends on the child's age and maturity. Jennifer tries not to involve the children if at all possible. The judges really do not want to hear from the children if we can help it, it is not healthy or comfortable for the kids. But if they are the only witness to something that happened or has a very strong desire of where they want to live, they will listen to desires and where they want to be, but the judge doesn’t have to consider their wishes.
Anna also asked Jennifer... So, if one parent is saying mean things about another parent, is there anything the legal system can do anything about it?
Generally when a parent is talking negatively about another parent, especially in the presence of the children or within earshot of the children, that is looked on very negatively in the legal system and by a judge specifically. A judge would absolutely consider that in deciding custodial a schedule.
There’s a lot of weight placed on the parents' abilities to co-parent effectively and promote the child's relationship with the other parent and keep the children out of the conflict. This applies to step parents as well.
When I am working with families going through separation or divorce, my job is to not look for the negative. I am actively assisting the children to form high quality relationships with both parents and capitalize on the strength of each parent. I want to have the kids recognize the things they are good at, not focus on the negatives. I know parents are leery about going to a therapist for themselves or for their kids. They are concerned it will “look bad” to the other parent or the court, but it can really be so helpful to help parents and kids navigate through this time in a more peaceful way.
Jennifer has found that it is a positive thing in all circumstances that the parent or kids are in therapy. If one parent tries to say something is wrong with that, it usually backfires. It is seen as a positive thing now in the system, times have changed. It is now a matter of being responsible and helping your children through the often challenging transitional time.
In summary, if you are a parent thinking about separation, consult with a lawyer to be prepared, be mindful of your financial circumstances and who you let in your life at this time. Know that there are people out there who are available to support parents and their children through this and to help you figure out what is best for everyone.
To learn about Jennifer and her services or ask any questions: visit her website at www.yourncattorney.com or email her at email@example.com
To learn more about Dr. Tara Egan, visit www.drtaraegan.com.
To learn more about Dr. Tara Egan's private therapy practice, visit www.charlotteparentcoaching.com