Joint Custody for Parents of School-Aged Children

Back to school is right around the corner, and that has many parents of school-aged children in a frenzy of preparation. If you have joint custody, here are some extra things to think about as the school year starts.

Parental Rights and School Policies

A recent post reminds parents that even when they don’t have joint custody, they still have parental rights to get information from schools and other professionals that care for their children. Parents have the right to:

  • Report cards
  • Progress reports
  • Teacher communications
  • Updates about their children
  • Attend disciplinary proceedings
  • Participate in special education assessments, IEPs, and 504 planning meetings

But that doesn’t automatically mean parents have the right to face-to-face conferences with teachers and staff. Divorces and custody disputes can bring out the worst in people, including parents. When a heated custody battle shows up at school, teachers and administrators can sometimes feel threatened. If a school has reason to believe a person is a threat to the school, its staff, or especially its students, it will often remove that person from the premises.

If your divorce was particularly intense, there could also be personal protection orders, temporary restraining orders, or other directives from the court that limit when, where, and how a parent can participate in his or her child’s education. People convicted of sexual offenses (and listed on the sex offender registry) are also prohibited from entering school property.

These laws, orders, and school directives must be followed. While parents have the right to receive information in a non-threatening way, schools and the courts have a stronger interest in protecting the children in their care.

Joint Legal Custody and Decision-Making Authority

Most custody orders give parents joint legal custody. This requires co-parents to work together to agree on major decisions affecting their children. School is one of the places where these decisions happen. Joint legal custody dictates cooperation in deciding:

  • Where children attend school,
  • What classes they enroll in,
  • What extracurricular activities they participate in,
  • Whether they participate in special education programs,
  • How disciplinary issues are resolved

It is up to both parents to protect this joint decision-making authority. Schools will often take the word of the first parent they speak to. Non-custodial parents with joint legal custody need to be especially careful to let school administrators and teachers know that they need to be involved in educational decisions concerning their children.

Joint Physical Custody and Responding to School Day Emergencies

Increasingly, parents, and particularly men, are not willing to just be weekend dads. As the modern concept of family has expanded, more separating parents are finding that a traditional alternating weekend schedule doesn’t work for them or their children. The increase in joint physical custody arrangements mean that both parents will have custody during part of the school week.

For example, Mom may be responsible for dropping her child off Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Then Dad picks up the child on Wednesday and has parenting time Thursday and Friday.

Custody doesn’t stop when the child walks through the schoolhouse doors. When a school day emergency comes up – like a forgotten lunch, a sudden illness, or fight, school administrators need to know which parent to call. Family lawyers, Friend of the Court Referees and judges refer to this as the “on-duty parent” and it depends on how your parenting time order is written. The above example could be written two different ways:

“Mom shall have custody from Sunday at 7:00 p.m. until the start of school on Wednesday. Dad shall have custody from the end of school Wednesday until Sunday at 7:00 p.m.”

In this example, it is clear Mom is the on-duty parent on Monday and Tuesday and Dad is responsible for Thursday and Friday. If something happens on those days, the school can use the provided parenting time order to direct its actions. But what about Wednesday? Who is the on-duty parent to respond to the fact that the child got sick at lunch? A clearer custody order would say something like:

“Mom shall have custody from Sunday at 7:00 p.m. until drop off at school Wednesday morning, or if there is no school, 9:00 a.m. Dad shall have custody from 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, and will be responsible to pick up at school on Wednesday afternoon, until Sunday at 7:00 p.m.”

Now there is a clear shift-change between on-duty parents, even though that transition will typically happen while the child is in school. There is no significant change to who spends time with the child on any given day, but the second language provides clarity when it comes to responding to school day emergencies.

Parents should consider their own work responsibilities and schedules when agreeing to a custody and parenting time order. If one parent has a harder time leaving work when a child is sick, consider an afternoon shift-change. A parenting time order could even direct that one parent will be the first point of contact for a school, regardless of parenting time. However, this language should be used carefully to protect the other parent’s right to exercise his or her parenting time.

Joint custody can often be a good decision for coparents and their children. But it doesn’t happen automatically. Parents with joint custody orders need to be diligent to protect their rights, and the rights of their former spouses and partners, in interacting with school districts. It will be better for parents and children alike.

Lisa J. Schmidt is a family lawyer at Schmidt & Long, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She helps parents plan custody and parenting time schedules that work. If you are facing a custody dispute, contact Schmidt & Long today for a free consultation.