You’re divorced, child custody was settled, and there is a working parenting plan in place. Life goes on, then changing circumstances affect you and your kids. The good news is that you can modify a parenting plan without going back to court.
Mom Was Moving Out of State
I had the opportunity to help an already divorced couple re-negotiate their parenting plan without having to go back to court and shell out thousands of dollars for litigation. Here’s how it went down: The couple, “Ruth” and “Justin” had been divorced for 11 years, sharing custody of their now 13-year-old daughter, “Lexi”. Their co-parenting of Lexi had its issues; however, Ruth and Justin had been able to compromise most of the time.
But Ruth recently remarried, and received a job promotion which necessitated relocation across the country. Both Ruth and her daughter were excited to move to Atlanta. It was happening just as Lexi was about to start high school and, although she was sad about leaving her friends, she had a good attitude about her new adventure. So, most of the big decisions had been made: new house, moving date, school enrollment. The final remaining stumbling block was obtaining Justin’s permission to move his daughter out of state.
Dad Didn’t Want to Lose Visitation
Understandably, Justin was not immediately on board to consent to his daughter moving 2,500 miles away from him. His divorce decree and parenting plan prohibited Ruth from taking their minor daughter away from the state for more than seven consecutive days, and Justin was quite adamant about sticking to the plan. He was also very clear that he was unwilling to lose any of his visitation days with Lexi.
Start by Nailing Down the Issues
When they came to my office for their first mediation session, we quickly identified that there were three issues that needed to be resolved: permission to move the minor child out of state; modifying the visitation schedule to accommodate the relocation; and who was going to pay for the travel expenses. Permission to move the minor child required very little discussion. Although Justin didn’t want his daughter to move across the country, he understood that she would benefit by being in a better school district and, as it turned out, being closer to other members of her extended family. Permission granted, and onto the next issue: scheduling.
Baby Steps in Mediation
Everyone took out calendars, and we started talking about school schedules, holidays, vacations, and the complications of air travel. It was evident to me, as the Mediator, that the parents were becoming overwhelmed. So, I suggested that we only discuss the upcoming school year. By limiting the scheduling to nine months rather than five years, both Justin and Ruth visibly relaxed. After that, it was like trading players on a fantasy football team. “I’ll take the first week of the winter break and you can have her the second week.” Or, “I’d prefer that Lexi spend her birthday with me, so she can be with her grandparents.” You get the picture.
By taking a baby step in mediation, Justin and Ruth were able to focus on establishing a temporary plan, leaving room for flexibility, instead of being forced to follow a Court Order. Mediation allowed these two parents to focus on the needs of their daughter instead of on their own interests.
Once these two hurdles were overcome, the final issue of who pays for airfare turned out to be relatively easy. Justin started the negotiation process by offering to pay zero dollars for Lexi’s airfare. I let them argue for a moment, and then asked Ruth how much she was willing to pay. Ruth said 50%. Justin countered back at 1/3, and it was as though the bell signaling the end of the round in a heavyweight fight had been heard. Ruth agreed to pay 2/3 and they went back to their neutral corners. The bout had ended, not by knock-out, but by unanimous decision.
A Winning Way to Modify a Parenting Plan
Three issues, three resolutions, two hours total. I wrote up a document to modify their parenting plan incorporating their decisions; they signed it in front of my Notary, and everyone left feeling like they won.
Mediation Empowers the Parents
You can only imagine how long this might have taken through litigation, not to mention the expense. And most significant, imagine the risk involved in allowing a Judge to determine what’s best for the family. A Judge who, although well-intended, has no real knowledge of the family’s dynamic. By opting to modify a parenting plan through the process of mediation, Justin and Ruth were empowered to craft their own resolution and, in this particular instance, by making a temporary agreement to be revisited later, if necessary.
Naturally, not every divorced couple is a candidate for mediation. They must come into the process carrying a spirit of cooperation in their pockets.
Mediation After a Bitter Divorce
In another example, “Ben” and “Sara” went through a bitter divorce when their two kids were toddlers. They each ran up tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees because Ben wanted the divorce and Sara intended to “make him pay.” And he sure did!
Not only did Ben get his shirt handed to him in Court, but he had minimal visitation with his children and paid the maximum in child support. They came to me literally 10 years later because circumstances had changed considerably over the decade since their divorce. The two kids were now teenagers, and were proving to be more than Sara was willing or able to handle. Not only did Ben want more time with his kids, the kids wanted to live with their dad permanently.
Modify a Parenting Plan to Change Primary Custody
Through the process of mediation, it came out that neither of the teenagers liked Sara’s live-in boyfriend. And the boyfriend was, evidently, jealous of the attention Sara gave to her own children. The living situation in Sara’s home was full of conflict, and neither of the kids was happy. Enough time had passed for Sara to get over her bitterness towards Ben, and both parents were ready to make some changes. So, they hammered out a new parenting plan, modifying everything including primary physical custody, and child support. Again, I prepared a written document for them to sign which set forth all of the modifications.
Mediation Reduced Court Appearances and Costs
In Ben and Sara’s instance, a brief amount of attorney involvement was necessary. Once they signed the agreement I prepared after mediation, Ben’s attorney drafted the necessary paperwork to submit to the Court showing that the parties changed the prior Court Order through the process of mediation. The fact that a Mediator prepared an agreement reflecting the desires of the parties, and that agreement bore the parties’ signatures, all but guaranteed that the Judge would approve the modification. In less than a month, Ben and Sara received the Court’s blessing by way of an Order modifying their divorce decree to afford Ben primary physical custody of their teenagers, and considerably reducing the child support payments.
How Mediation Can Work For You
There are many more examples of how mediation can be an effective way of modifying prior Court Orders without the need for expensive and time-consuming litigation. The one common thread in every such situation is the spirit of compromise. If you aren’t willing to be flexible, mediation is not for you. But, if enough time has passed, if you’re willing to put the greater good ahead of your need to be right, if you value your future more than you need to validate your past, I highly urge you to consider mediation.
How to suggest mediation to your ex? Easy. Just tell her that you’ve been looking into mediation as an alternative method to litigation, and that mediation is confidential, expedient, and costs a fraction of what attorneys charge.
Finding a Capable Mediator
There are many places to look for a capable Mediator. When doing so, it’s important to keep in mind that not all Mediators are attorneys, and not all attorneys are Mediators. I’d suggest that you and your ex interview at least two candidates, check for reviews on Yelp (yes, Yelp), sniff around LinkedIn, and go to subscription services such as Mediate.com. Most Mediators will offer an initial consultation at no charge. Then, trust your instincts. You won’t be disappointed.
Nancy Gabriel is the principal and managing partner of Mediation Around The Table, LLC., a Las Vegas-based private mediation company. Ms. Gabriel is a founding director of Nevada Mediation Group, a non-profit corporation focusing on the education and training of mediators, a volunteer for the Neighborhood Justice Center of Clark County, Nevada, a member of the divorce panel for MWI, a Boston, Massachusetts firm specializing in alternative dispute resolutions, and a volunteer at Three Square Food Bank. She is a graduate of UCLA, an avid gourmet cook and NFL fan. She may be contacted through the firm website at www.MediationAroundTheTable.com
- Most guys aren’t thinking about co-parenting success in the heat of divorce. Anger, resentment, guilt, self-righteousness, and self-pity tend to take over, whether you want them to or not. You’ve been screwed over mentally and financially, and your anger is justified. As a dad, you have more tough choices to…