For divorcing parents, obvious settlement topics include custody and child support. But the particulars of your children’s schooling are also important. Making sure your divorce decree clearly specifies how you and your ex will handle parent-teacher conferences, access to school records, and other arrangements regarding your child’s education will save you from confusion—and unnecessary resentment—down the road.
Determining school basics
“In most states, custody has two parts,” says Kimberly Mishkin, a divorce coach. “Physical custody is who the child lives with most of the time, and legal custody is who makes decisions for the child with regards to school, religion, and medical decisions.”
If parents share decision-making responsibilities, the divorce decree should say so, says Mishkin. “The agreement should state that one parent cannot make decisions without the written consent of the other.”
When one of the parents lives out of the area
During the divorce proceedings, the agreement should be clear about the child’s custodial parent and primary residence, which determine where the child will attend school. “If the parents plan to share decision making, they will need to agree upon where the child will be enrolled,” says Mishkin. “The divorce agreement should stipulate that one parent cannot change the child’s school without the express consent of the other.”
Mishkin always encourages her clients to ensure the settlement language clearly states that each parent is responsible for obtaining information from the school on their own. “It’s very easy for the custodial parent to suddenly fall into the role of ‘secretary,’” she cautions. “You don’t want to be in the position of having to keep your ex informed.”
For the visiting parent, being out of the area should not mean being out of touch. “Ideally, the out-of-town parents will be involved in the child’s schooling via internet, emails, and attending parent-teacher conferences or events like games or performances,” says Texas attorney Jeff Anderson of ONDA Family Law. “Most schools have everything online now so you can get up-to-the minute grades, schedules, activities, and general school events on the district website or student portal.”
Access to school records
“Unless there is something specific in the divorce decree that prevents it, both parents are automatically entitled to access school records and talk to teachers,” says Anderson.
Mishkin, a former educator, says that schools are more than happy to provide each parent a copy of everything they send out and have separate conferences, if necessary. “In the event that two parents cannot attend something together—because they cannot be civil, a restraining order is in place, or one parent does not live in the area—schools are usually willing to make accommodations to the best of their ability,” she says.
Anderson adds, “if the parents simply cannot get along, they might consider seeking a provision in the divorce order which provides for switching off at events or requiring the parents to stay a certain distance away from one another.”
School drop-offs, pick-ups, and emergencies
On the first day of the school year, most students are required to provide emergency contact information. Unless prohibited by the divorce decree, “the school should list both parents as people to be contacted in case of emergency and as people who may pick up the children from school,” says Anderson.
However, the non-custodial parents should not have such authority if the custodial parent is concerned the child may be removed from the school without his or her consent. Should that happen, it makes sense to reach out to your divorce attorney—calling the police is not usually a good option. “Divorces are civil matters, which means the police will likely not prevent a parent from picking up the child,” according to Anderson
Furthermore, it is uncommon for schools to prohibit one parent or the other from removing the child from the premises, even when a copy of a relevant divorce decree has been provided. “The real teeth to an order of the court is in the enforcement of that order,” explains Anderson. “If the non-custodial parents picks up the child in violation of the order, the remedy is to file a Motion for Enforcement and ask that the parent be punished by the court.”
What if you’re afraid the child might be kidnapped or harmed by the ex-spouse? File an emergency motion to prevent it, as well as to justify keeping the other parent from taking possession of the child. “Be super clear with the school so they can warn all staff, bus drivers, etc. that the child is not to go with that parent,” says Mishkin.
Paying school expenses
Even public education can be expensive. There are field trips, activity fees, lunches, school pictures, and a whole host of supplies to pay for. “Typically, school expenses are paid by the custodial parent with help via child support from the visiting parent,” says Anderson. “But there are always exceptions.” If an exception is needed, it should be addressed in the divorce order. “Without a requirement that the non-custodial parent pay part or all of school activities, private school tuition, or other expenses, that parent will not be required to pay for any of those things.”
Most states have a formula for determining basic child support amounts for food, clothing, and shelter. “Some states, like New York, also have mandatory ‘add-ons,’ such as babysitting costs, health insurance, and unreimbursed medical costs (copays),” says Mishkin. “Other costs, extracurricular activities, entertainment, etc. are discretionary and have to be agreed to by the parents.”
She adds that it all boils down to crafting a proper custody agreement. “All of these things, big and small, must be discussed and agreed upon.” And all such dealings should be transparent to the child, whose only school-related expectation is to thrive.