By Elisabeth Edwards, Wanzer Edwards PC
If you’re anything like me, your summer as a family law attorney is usually fraught with way more work than usual. In addition to the school choice and family relocation cases, there are all the summer parenting time issues that you — and your clients — didn’t know were issues. After all, if you haven’t heard from a client by June 1, there must not be a problem with summer parenting time, right? Wrong. Instead, your blissful pool-side relaxation ends up marred by a frantic voicemail from a client who did not get the parenting time that he or she believed was scheduled. Now your client has plane tickets to cancel, trips to reschedule, and for your clients, it feels like the end of the world. Could this have been avoided? Most of the time, yes. Next year, I’m going to take my OWN advice and help my clients to be proactive about their summer parenting time. Here’s how we can all keep our sanity and enjoy our family law practices next summer:
Around March 1, reach out to your clients who are labeled as “non-custodial” under the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines (“IPTG”) with a reminder that their proposed parenting time schedule is due, in writing, to their co-parent no later than April 1. Especially if they are newly divorced or have a new court order, encourage them to run their schedule by you first to ensure compliance with the court order and the IPTG. Expand the schedule to not only include days requested but exchange times as well. This will hopefully eliminate future problems or attempts to derail parenting time. Have them blind copy you when the schedule is sent to the co-parent. Suggest that the notice include a “read receipt” that the co-parent has received it. The IPTG provide that “a timely selection shall not be rejected by the other parent” (IPTG, Section II(D)(3). Occasionally, however, there may be slight adjustments that need to be made to a schedule that it otherwise provided timely and complies with a court order, such as restrictions on vacation time from an employer. The IPTG do provide that these types of “employer-imposed restrictions shall be considered by the parents” in scheduling parenting time.
Around April 5, reach out to your clients who are labeled as “custodial” under the IPTG to inquire if the summer parenting time schedule was received from their co-parent. If they have and the schedule complies with the terms of their order and the IPTG and there are no conflicts, great. But if the schedule is just plain wrong or does not take into account any employer-imposed restrictions, suggest revisions immediately and hopefully before reservations are made and plans are set in stone. If no schedule was provided by April 1, suggest to your client that he or she create a summer parenting time schedule that complies with the court order and the IPTG and send it to their co-parent. Better now to go ahead and set a schedule rather than to take a call from your client that their co-parent is asking for parenting time without any set schedule, and it’s creating havoc with planned activities and trips. Create a schedule to avoid the uncertainty.
For parties who are going to split the summer into two chunks, ensure that each parent’s time is clearly defined and detailed. The IPTG provide that, “During any extended summer period of more than two (2) consecutive weeks with the non-custodial parent, the custodial parent shall have the benefit of the regular parenting time schedule set forth above, which includes alternating weekends and mid-week parenting time, unless impracticable because of distance created by out of town vacations.” IPTG, Section II(D)(3). Even if the non-custodial parent exercises more time than alternating weekends and one night mid-week, the IPTG suggest that the custodial parent should only have the “schedule set forth above,” which presumably means what we would call the “minimum” amount suggested in Section II(D)(1), Friday at 6 p.m. through Sunday at 6 p.m. and one evening per week for up to four (4) hours, but possibly an overnight, if feasible. During the custodial parent’s half of the summer, the non-custodial parent will still have his or her regular parenting time pursuant to the court order. Despite this discrepancy in the language of the IPTG, many custodial parents expect the same regular parenting time schedule that their co-parent enjoys during the school year, such as a midweek or Sunday overnight. Make sure that both parties have clear expectations and a visual calendar on which to fall back.
For parties who desire to use a week-on/week-off schedule for the summer, suggest that the exchange day be a Friday or Sunday so that each parent can enjoy an uninterrupted week and uninterrupted weekend. Your client’s schedule with a Wednesday exchange day will only cause headaches for both parties trying to plan for enrichment camps and vacations.
If your clients have a shared parenting time and/or a year-round schedule, touch base around March 1 to push them to still exchange a proposed summer parenting time schedule with their co-parent by April 1 to cover any uninterrupted parenting time or vacations. Include set times that each parent’s time begins and ends each day in the event that the “Opportunity for Additional Parenting Time” as contained in Section I(C)(3) arises due to a child’s illness, or a parent taking some time off from work, perhaps for a day at the splash pad. (You should probably also start incorporating beginning and end times for parenting time as a general rule in all proposed orders or agreements so as to account for child illness, snow days and the like.)
Make sure that both parents acknowledge the other parent’s summer parenting time holidays, such as Memorial Day weekend, Father’s Day weekend, and the Fourth of July holiday. Many a parent has had to delay leaving for a family trip because the Father’s Day weekend was overlooked in planning.
Suggest to clients that they NOT make reservations for hotels, timeshares or purchase plane tickets until the summer parenting time schedule is acknowledged and confirmed by both parties. It’s much easier and less expensive to make the arrangements once rather than to have a costly flight re-booking fee. Then once those reservations and plans are made, if the child is traveling with your client, have your client relay an itinerary immediately, and no fewer than seven (7) days prior to the trip. The itinerary should include “travel dates, destinations, and the places where either child or the traveling parent can be reached,” pursuant to the “Emergency Notification” provisions of the IPTG, Section I(A)(6). If the child will be spending the night at a location, that is considered a “destination” and should be shared with the co-parent. It is not necessary to note everyday trip or amusement park which may be visited. This way, your client also avoids calls from his or her co-parent when he or she should be making memories on a trip with their child.
If your client’s parenting time order includes parenting time under Section III, “Parenting Time When Distance is a Major Factor,” confirm that all travel details are worked out well in advance, and preferably before April 1. Make sure now that an adult will be traveling with the child, if that is required under the order. Set an expectation that the custodial parent will not unexpectedly “drop-in” during the non-custodial parent’s time, or demand to provide childcare under the “Opportunity for Additional Parenting Time.” If the “distance between residences” and time available does not make it practical to offer the opportunity for additional time, then there should be no expectation for the time to be offered by the non-custodial parent on his or her time. Set expectations early and head these issues off at the pass before the child gets on the plane.
If scheduling summer parenting time continues to be a constant problem because of misunderstanding, ongoing disagreement with their co-parent, or lack of knowledgeable counsel, consider asking for the appointment of a Parenting Coordinator (“PC”). A PC may be appointed “by agreement of the parties OR formal order of the court,” pursuant to IPTG, Section V(C)(1), so a party’s failure to agree to a PC does not necessarily mean that a PC cannot be appointed. Petition the court now to put an experienced PC in place well before trouble arises next summer. Even if the PC only meets with the parties for an intake appointment and then sits idly, the PC can ensure that a parenting plan is created which effectuates the terms of the parties’ order and the IPTG well in advance of the summer, as well as for the school year.
Hopefully, with some advanced planning, your summertime blues regarding parenting time can be avoided. Better luck next year and see you next summer!