The winter holidays can be full of joy, but its common knowledge that they can also generate a great deal of stress. For those facing divorce, mustering up any holiday spirit at all can be a challenge. You may find yourself surrounded by high expectations at the exact same time that you must confront the end of one of your most important relationships and the prospect of restructuring your entire family. Read more
As the end of the year ushers in another holiday season, many divorcing parents find themselves at odds. Finalizing parenting agreements can be challenging when it includes dividing holiday time. To make matters worse, the 2018 holiday season brings extra pressure for many divorcing couples. Those with alimony provisions need to finalize their divorce agreements by the end of the year to avoid big tax changes.
None of this is easy, but you can at least feel confident that if you and your spouse are negotiating a settlement in mediation, you have a good chance of staying on schedule. Read more
In our last post, we discussed how individual and shared interests often come into conflict in negotiating prenuptial agreements. We saw how an aggressive attorney representing the wealthier of two engaged partners might produce an initial draft prenup with the potential to derail what would otherwise be a happy marriage. In this post we will talk about how the mediation process can provide a better alternative. Read more
Situations where parties have both opposing interests and shared interests are well-suited to mediation. Divorce settlements generally fall into this category. As we will discuss in this post, prenuptial agreements — often called “prenups”— fall into it even more squarely. This makes mediation a potentially useful process for negotiating such agreements. Read more
If you are just reaching a decision about ending your marriage, you may be confused about the best way to go about it.
Perhaps you have friends urging you to hire an aggressive attorney to prevent your soon-to-be-ex from trying to take advantage of you. Or maybe your friends are urging you to steer clear of expensive attorneys and just handle everything yourself. Perhaps you and your spouse are fairly amicable and you are both interested in divorce mediation, but you aren’t sure which issues you actually need a mediator to help you resolve. Is mediation the right answer? Read more
In our last post, we discussed how a couple with three children between 12 and 15 years of age made the decision to pursue child inclusive mediation (CI). Both Jeff, a high school math teacher and basketball coach, and Yvonne, an IT professional, wanted primary residential custody of 15-year-old Kyle and 12-year-old twins, Katie and Kayla. Their mediator, Brian Hill, suggested that they try CI, a process that brings a mutually agreed upon child specialist into the mediation. Yvonne and Jeff agreed that this seemed like a positive way to move forward with a successful parenting plan. They chose Dr. Jasmine Landers as their specialist.
Meetings with the Child Specialist
Dr. Landers met individually with each parent and each child, and also met with each parent together with the children. She gathered detailed information about the children’s educational and developmental histories, as well as their current and future schedules of extracurricular activities. She then met with the parents and the mediator to discuss her findings and help them put together a workable plan.
Both Jeff and Yvonne were somewhat surprised at what they learned from the meetings with Dr. Landers. The twins had agreed that they had a closer relationship with their mother than with their father. At the same time, however, both of them had spontaneously expressed comfort with splitting time equally between their parents’ new homes. They expressed great relief that both parents had decided to remain in their current neighborhood. Kyle, on the other hand, had told Dr. Landers in his separate meeting that it was hard for him to spend a lot of time with his father. If he had to choose, he said, he would much prefer to live with his mother.
“I did notice some tension between you and Kyle when I interviewed you together,” Dr. Landers told Jeff. “My guess is that some of it might come from him feeling pressure to impress you, because of the fact that you are not only his dad, but also his coach. From various comments he made, I also suspect that he may be blaming you for the divorce to some degree. Kids sometimes feel that they have to take a side.”
When Jeff expressed shock at this observation and jumped to defend himself, Dr. Landers immediately reassured him. “I’m not making any judgments here,” she stressed. “It’s quite obvious to me that both of you are involved parents who are deeply committed to your children. Kyle might just be feeling protective of his mother, without that necessarily having anything in particular to do with you. In fact, I sensed a bit of the opposite from the twins. They seem to be feeling protective of their father. That may be why they jumped to the equal time idea, as a way of ensuring that Jeff was not going to be shut out.”
“Older children often hide their own needs for emotional support,” Dr. Landers continued. “All three of your kids came across as very responsible and very mature for their ages. While that’s mostly a positive thing, it’s important that both of you make clear to them that they do not have to take care of you. You are still the parents, and so you should be protecting them; not the other way around. For Kyle in particular, a few sessions with a family therapist might help him work through his feelings.”
Functional Parenting Plans for Teens and Preteens
Dr. Landers then noted that the formerly high conflict level between the parents seemed to have dispersed considerably since they’d entered mediation. “That’s a great development for your kids,” she pointed out. “If the two of you feel that you can co-parent without fighting, the best solution would probably be for you to split parenting time equally or nearly equally. If that is too challenging, then right now the factors slightly favor designating Yvonne as the primary parent.”
Jeff protested that practical reasons made it less convenient for Kyle to spend either more time or equal time with Yvonne. Yvonne countered that she did not know how sharing time with the twins would work either, since she spent many evenings transporting them to dance classes and other activities.
“Well, that is the next step,” Dr. Landers continued. “For preteens and teens, the practicalities are often the most important thing. Each of you should consult a calendar and line up the children’s activities with your own outside responsibilities. See if you can come up with something that gives you both ample time with the kids, and also takes care of their individual needs for transportation and support. The time-share doesn’t have to be exactly equal. The kids don’t all have to have identical parenting schedules either. The great thing about creating your own plan is that you can be creative and flexible.”
Jeff and Yvonne Create Their Own Parenting Plan
Yvonne and Jeff each thought carefully before submitting their written proposals. While they continued to disagree on certain points, after a couple of attempts they came up with a mutually acceptable schedule. The plan was both detailed and unique. They had nearly equal parenting time, but their time-sharing with Kyle changed seasonally to adapt to his extracurricular activities. During the winter, he spent more time with Jeff because it was easier for him to get back and forth to practices and games that way. During the spring and fall, however, he spent more time with Yvonne. The twins, on the other hand, had a fairly stable split week schedule. They spent one extra day each week with Yvonne, to make it easier for her to drive them to their evening activities. During the summer, all of the kids spent half their vacation time with Kyle and half with Yvonne.
With the help of Dr. Landers and Mr. Hill, Yvonne and Jeff were able to craft a parenting agreement promising collaboration and flexibility. They included details about how they would communicate with each other; how the children would communicate with the parent they were not currently staying with; and how the family would resolve future disagreements, including returning to mediation for any intractable dispute. Both Jeff and Yvonne left mediation highly satisfied with both the process and their results.
If you are interested in constructing a mediation process to resolve your parenting dispute, the child custody mediators at Weinberger Law Group’s Mediation Center can help. Contact us today for a free consultation.
Recently we have been discussing different procedural options for resolving child custody disputes in New Jersey. We followed one family through litigation and another through mediation with a child-focused approach. Today we will look at a third option, child-inclusive mediation.
Mediation vs. Litigation for Parenting Disputes
As we discussed in our February post, there are several reasons why mediating parenting disputes is generally preferable to litigating them. Mediation tends to defuse conflict, while litigation tends to inflame it. Mediation also protects the privacy of the family, and it is usually much cheaper than going to court. Parties in mediation can share a child development expert. This adds an expense to the mediation process, but it is still generally cost-effective as compared to hiring competing experts to give opinions in court. In April, we saw how some of this played out in the case of Alan and Cherie. While they eventually achieved a reasonable result through litigation, both were unhappy with the cost and the degree of conflict associated with that approach
Child-Focused Mediation vs. Child-Inclusive Mediation
As we have also previously discussed, there are different ways to use a child specialist in mediation. Two approaches that appear to reduce post-resolution conflict between parents are child-focused mediation (CF) and child-inclusive mediation (CI). Both approaches facilitate parenting agreements that incorporate aspirational language and address communication between parents and other aspects of the parent-child relationship. Both approaches employ a child specialist to provide parents with age-specific information about the effects of divorce on children. In CI, however, the specialist also interviews the children in the family before meeting with the parents and the mediator.
While CI may produce somewhat better results than CF, it is only appropriate for children who are at least 5 years old. Last month we followed Derek and Megan, a couple with two young children, through a CF process. Today we will focus on a couple trying to choose an appropriate process for a parenting dispute involving older children.
Jeff and Yvonne Begin Divorce Mediation
Jeff, a high school teacher and basketball coach, and Yvonne, an IT professional, are both 44 years old, and they have been married for 20 years. Their children are 15-year-old Kyle, and 12-year-old twins, Katie and Kayla. Yvonne works a regular 9-5 schedule, while Jeff is generally at school from about 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. During basketball season, he works both longer days and weekends. He has also worked at a science day camp for about 6 weeks during each of the past few summers.
Yvonne and Jeff decided to divorce more than a year ago, but practical concerns prevented them from moving forward. Neither was willing to move out of the family home, mainly because they both wanted to seek primary custody of the children. On the advice of their attorneys, they recently decided to try mediation, where they immediately began to make progress. One of their first decisions was to sell the family home. Renting or purchasing two smaller homes within the same neighborhood, they agreed, would make it easy for the children to travel between homes. They did not agree, however, on how much time the children should spend at each parent’s home.
Mediating Parenting Disputes with Older Children
Yvonne felt strongly that the children should have one home base. She also felt strongly that the twins would want to stay with her rather than splitting their time. “I know it isn’t right to just come out and ask them,” she said. “I wouldn’t put them in the middle like that, but they are 12-year-old girls, and they have both always been very close to me.” She proposed a parenting schedule that gave Jeff alternate weekends and Wednesday night dinners.
Jeff adamantly objected. “I know the three of you are close,” he acknowledged, “but I don’t think that means that they wouldn’t want to spend at least half their time with me. I’m also pretty sure that Kyle would rather live with me, and now that he’s on the basketball team, it would definitely be more convenient.”
Yvonne did not find Jeff’s arguments convincing. “Kyle fights with you constantly,” she pointed out. “If you are going to be his coach, he probably needs more time away from you, not more time with you.”
Jeff and Yvonne Choose a Child-Inclusive Process
After Jeff and Yvonne went around in circles for a while, their mediator, Brian Hill, made a suggestion. “You’re right that asking children about their living preferences can be very tricky,” he agreed. “Most kids will hesitate to state their feelings plainly, because they don’t want to feel disloyal to either parent. One way to handle this is to involve a child development specialist who can interview everyone in the family. Professionals with a lot of experience in reorganizing families know how to assess what would be in a child’s best interests without asking direct questions.”
Mr. Hill gave the parents some additional information about child-inclusive mediation. Both Yvonne and Jeff agreed that this seemed like a positive way to move forward. Their attorneys each recommended two or three experts, and eventually they agreed upon Dr. Jasmine Landers, a licensed psychologist with many years of experience helping divorcing families reorganize their lives. In our next post, we will see how the CI process works out for Yvonne and Jeff’s family.
If you are having trouble choosing a process to resolve your parenting dispute, the child custody mediators at Weinberger Law Group’s Mediation Center can help. Contact us today for a free consultation.
Last month we discussed the predicament of Alan and Cherie, a couple who took their parenting dispute to court. Each of them hired a separate child custody evaluator, and while neither parent was dissatisfied with the ultimate result, both were highly dissatisfied with the level of conflict involved and with both the complexity and the high cost of the procedures. Today, we will look at another couple with a parenting dispute who have decided to take a different approach. While this couple is fictional, their story tracks the composite experiences of many people going through a divorce with children.
Megan and Derek wish to reduce both the conflict in their family and the cost of their divorce. They are already in mediation to resolve a dispute regarding division of their dental practice, but they have had few discussions about child custody and visitation. Megan recently moved out of the townhouse they purchased together during their marriage. She is temporarily staying at her parents’ house a couple of miles away. The children are there with her a little more than half the time. Both parents told their mediator, Evan Murphy, that they would like to be the primary parent. Both also stated emphatically that they wanted to be sure to do what would be best for the kids. They asked the mediator for advice on how to proceed.
Using a Child Specialist in Mediation
Mr. Murphy suggested that Derek and Megan consider hiring a joint child specialist. The specialist would provide them with information and guidance and help ensure that the needs and interests of the children stayed at the forefront during parenting negotiations. Mr. Murphy also shared some information about “child focused mediation” (CF) and “child inclusive mediation” (CI). As we discussed in an earlier post, these are approaches that facilitate cooperative parenting agreements. In both CF and CI, a child consultant provides parents with age-specific information about the effects of divorce on children. A CI consultant goes a step further, by also interviewing the children before meeting with the parents and the mediator.
Research has shown that both CF and CI appear to reduce post-resolution conflict between parents. CI may produce superior results, but it cannot be effectively utilized with very young children. While Derek and Megan’s 5-year-old daughter Ally is close to the age where CI might be appropriate, 3-year-old Jessie is definitely too young. The parents therefore decided to pursue a CF approach and to include a child specialist in one mediation session. They eventually agreed upon Dr. Marielle Chevalier, a licensed family therapist and child development specialist with extensive experience assisting reorganizing families with parenting plans.
The Child Specialist’s Educational Role
Dr. Chevalier purposefully engaged Megan and Derek in their parental roles, by addressing them as “Mom” and “Dad.” She began the session by providing them with some educational materials geared to the social and emotional developmental needs of preschool and young school age children, as well as some more general information about the impact of parental conflict on children’s emotional health and social development.
“Younger children generally bond better with both parents if the gaps between visits are shorter,” she told them. “This tends to be true regardless of the total amount of time spent with each parent. Once children are about Jessie’s age, most already have a close bond with each parent, and the majority can adapt to schedules with three day or four day gaps. Schedules requiring longer gaps, however, such as alternating weekends or alternating weeks, should, if possible, wait until a child is closer to five or six years old.”
“Parents with young children,” Dr. Chevalier continued, “often build planned adjustments into the parenting schedule to accommodate anticipated developments. In general, however, children respond well to predictable and clear schedules, and to home environments that allow them some leeway in creating their own “space.” With that in mind, it’s important to consider things like ease of travel between homes, and whether or not any particular time-sharing arrangement might affect the need for duplication of items. The overall goal is to create a schedule that is easy to follow and works well for all members of the family. Always view yourselves as a team with a mutual commitment to the success of your children.”
Focusing on the Unique Characteristics of the Children and the Family
Dr. Chevalier then wrote Ally’s and Jessie’s names on a whiteboard and asked both parents to list important facts and circumstances about each child, such as personality, age, stage of development, and preferred activities. She asked Derek and Megan how they were currently addressing these circumstances, and how they had parented each child historically. Then she invited each of them to comment on what they thought was working and what might be improved.
Both parents agreed that Megan had been a slightly more hands-on parent than Derek, but they also agreed that Derek had been fully involved. They told the mediator that they had a full-time nanny who had been with the family since Ally was a year old. They were unsure whether or not they would still be able to afford her after the divorce. Megan stated that if Derek bought her out of the dental practice as he was hoping to do, she was thinking about working part-time until the kids were both in school full-time. If Derek agreed to this, she said, it would only make sense for her to have more parenting time. Derek pointed out that she didn’t know what kind of part-time schedule she might be able to get. He also added that he was not willing to settle for the role of a “weekend dad.”
Incorporating Aspirational and Collaborative Language into Parenting Agreements
After discussing the general and specific needs of the children, Dr. Chevalier shared some model parenting agreements with Derek and Megan. These all, in some way, incorporated aspirational language about co-parenting. They also included provisions addressing communication between parents and other aspects of the parent-child relationships. Examples included:
- Agreements to avoid negative comments and criticism of each other in the presence or hearing of the children;
- Guidelines for respectful communication, including specifying preferred methods (e.g., email, phone calls, or texts) and agreeing not to send messages via the children;
- Agreements to facilitate communication between both parents and the children, while also respecting each other’s private time (e.g., an agreement that the child will have up to a 30 minute scheduled Skype call each evening with the parent who is not physically present);
- Agreements to minimize changes to the time-sharing schedule while also remaining flexible whenever possible;
- Establishment of a method for resolving future disputes (e.g., an agreement to mediate intractable disagreements);
- Agreements to facilitate transitions between homes by addressing children’s needs and remaining positive about the two home arrangement;
Creating Clear and Flexible Parenting Plans
At the end of the session, Dr. Chevalier urged Megan and Derek to each come up with a parenting proposal. They could then use these to negotiate a mutually acceptable agreement. She recommended a highly structured plan for a test period. After 6-12 months, they could make any necessary adjustments. “As parents grow more comfortable with a plan,” she added, “flexibility and collaboration often tend to increase naturally.”
“Unexpected things always come up,” she cautioned, “and children’s needs change naturally over time. While thinking about possibilities like relocation or remarriage ahead of time might not be pleasant, these things are more likely when parents separate while their children are very young. Including a process for confronting such circumstances should they arise can help fend off emotional upheaval down the road.”
Megan and Derek submitted surprisingly similar proposals. They eventually agreed to follow a plan that closely duplicated their current and historical levels of parental involvement. Megan would have the children for four days a week and Derek for three. They also agreed that Megan working part-time until Jessie was in kindergarten would be positive for the kids and would eliminate the need for a full-time nanny. If Megan did establish a part-time work schedule, they would revisit the parenting schedule to be sure that her time off and her parenting time matched up as closely as possible. They also agreed to return to mediation if they ran into intractable issues with the schedule.
Megan and Derek were both highly satisfied with their ultimate result. They were also thrilled with the time and cost effectiveness of the procedural path that had led them there.
The mediators at Weinberger Mediation Center can help you design an appropriate and effective parenting mediation process. Contact us today for a free consultation.
Today we are going to look more closely at Alan and Cherie, a couple we introduced in our last post.[i] Alan, a 45-year-old executive for a fast food restaurant chain, and Cherie, a 43-year-old small business owner, have decided to end their 15-year-marriage. They separated about 6 months ago when Alan moved out of the family home and into a separate apartment. Alan and Cherie are currently involved in a parenting time dispute regarding 11-year-old Alexis and 9-year-old Mike.
For the first few months after the separation, Alan saw the children on alternate Friday and Saturday nights. Now that the divorce is becoming a reality, however, he has decided to fight for equal parenting time. Cherie, who has always maintained a flexible work schedule and acted as the primary parent, does not believe that Alan can realistically accommodate the children for any additional time. She points out that he is living in a one-bedroom apartment, and that he has always worked long hours, often twelve hours a day. Alan’s response is that he is looking into getting a larger home, as well as either cutting back his hours or working from home once or twice a week.
Cherie reacts to Alan’s ideas with high anxiety. She believes he has no idea how much attention children actually require, and she honestly doubts his ability to put their children first. If Alan persists with his plans, she foresees a nightmare scenario. The children would be largely unattended during Alan’s parenting time. Meanwhile, Alan would simultaneously lose income and spend more money on his own living expenses. “Things are working smoothly now,” she tells him. “Why rock the boat?”
Alan decides to consult with a child custody attorney, Rhoda Blankenship. Ms. Blankenship tells him that in light of his historical parenting role, equal time will be a stretch, but he can almost certainly get more time than he currently has. “Your wife is being unreasonable,” she states.
Upon hearing that Alan has hired an attorney, Cherie also seeks legal representation. She hires child custody attorney Jake Ballan. Mr. Ballan tells her essentially the same thing Ms. Blankenship has told Alan, with one key difference: “Your husband is being unreasonable,” he says.
The parents proceed to court-ordered parenting mediation, but neither budges significantly from their original positions. Both Ms. Blankenship and Mr. Ballan have reputations for being aggressive, and neither attorney dissuades their client from pursuing court action as the next step. Upon attorney advice, Alan and Cherie obtain separate custody evaluations from child specialists. Eventually, the court holds a hearing to determine the best arrangement for Mike and Alexis. The custody evaluators present written reports and testimony. Alan and Cherie also testify extensively.
The Child Custody Evaluations
Cherie’s Child Specialist
Cherie’s expert, psychologist Mary Hale, interviewed both parents several times at her office, both individually, and with Alexis and Mike. Dr. Hale also made observational home visits and interviewed Cherie’s parents, who have always spent a lot of time with the children. In her written report and testimony, Dr. Hale focused on Cherie’s primary parenting role, noting that Alan, by way of contrast, had largely been an absentee parent. Dr. Hale also remarked, however, on Alan’s commitment to making changes. While her recommendation was that the current alternate weekend schedule stay in place, she also stated that a midweek dinner for Alan and the children would be a positive addition. She also suggested that the parenting schedule incorporate brief evening Skype calls between Alan and the children.
Alan’s Child Specialist
Alan’s expert, psychologist James Wright, also conducted home visits and office interviews of each parent, both separately and with the children. In addition, he evaluated each parent with multiple psychometric testing, including the MMPI-2, which focuses on personality and behavior. He also reviewed school and medical records provided by both parents, and telephonically interviewed several relatives and caregivers.
In his report and court testimony, Dr. Wright readily acknowledged that Cherie had been the primary parent during the marriage. He went on, however, to list various accommodations Alan had already made that would help him become a more involved father going forward. For example, Alan had successfully adjusted his schedule to allow him to work from home on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. He had also made plans to move into a larger apartment. Dr. Wright stressed Alan’s commitment to living no more than a few miles away from Cherie, in spite of the challenge posed by the high rents in that area. This showed, Dr. Wright believed, that Alan understood the importance of making it easy for the kids to travel back and forth between homes.
Dr. Wright recommended extending Alan’s alternate weekends from Fridays after school until Monday morning drop-offs. He also recommended that Alan pick up the kids from school every Wednesday and keep them overnight until Thursday mornings. Finally, he echoed Dr. Hale’s suggestion about incorporating Skype calls into the schedule.
The Court’s Findings and Conclusions
At the conclusion of the court hearing, the judge made findings of fact on each element of the child custody statute, N.J.S.A. § 9:2-4. The findings reflected his acceptance of all testimony and written reports regarding both Cherie’s historical role as primary parent and Alan’s recent substantial efforts to become a more involved father. The judge then noted that the child custody statute encourages frequent and continuing contact between children and both parents, and also supports parenting arrangements that encourage both parents to share in the rights and responsibilities of child rearing. The schedule proposed by Dr. Wright, the judge concluded, appeared to be more in keeping with this philosophy. The judge ordered the parents to immediately implement Dr. Wright’s schedule. They were free to modify the schedule by mutual agreement as it pertained to pick up and drop off times or specific dates, but neither of them was to change the split of parenting time without a written agreement signed by both parties, or a court order to the contrary.
Alan and Cherie Reflect on Their Results
While Alan was reasonably satisfied with the parenting schedule ordered by the court, he was appalled that he had ended up paying over $40,000 in fees to his attorney and his child custody evaluator. Cherie was even more appalled. She too had come away with astronomical fees, and her own custody expert had recommended that Alan have more time than Cherie thought was reasonable. She complained bitterly to her attorney about this result. Eventually however, she realized that Mr. Ballan had told her from the very beginning that Alan was likely to end up with more time. Cherie reflected that perhaps the result was fair after all. Alan had not received equal time, just a chance to become more involved and prove himself as a father. Cherie felt both frustrated and rather foolish. The result was in between the positions each of them had staked out originally. Why had they not been able to negotiate to the same place without spending all that money?
There is usually a better alternative than a contentious court battle to resolve a parenting dispute. Mediation is one of those alternatives, and there are flexible options available within the mediation process. In our next post, we will see how Megan and Derek approach their parenting dispute.
If you are considering using private mediation to resolve your parenting disputes, the talented mediators at Weinberger Mediation Center can help you negotiate a fair solution and stay out of court. Contact us today for a free consultation.
[i] The couple in this story is fictional. The fact patterns and court findings and conclusions are hypothetical composites drawn from several actual cases.
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