by Zonder Family Law Group
Co-parenting often presents challenges in the best of circumstances. Further complicating this, we are also in a time of great upheaval in our American educational system. It was recently reported that California lost nearly 2% in enrollment of school-age children in one year. School board meetings across the country have become politically charged affairs relating to topics such as school closures, masking, and the cultural issues that are taught (or not taught) in schools. Many people from across the political spectrum have decided it is preferable to homeschool their children, and many students and their parents are questioning the value of a four-year college education compared to entering the workforce to learn a trade and gain real world experience.
For any set of parents, figuring out how to manage your children’s educational journey is a challenging affair in the 2020s. But for a divorced couples who are navigating co-parenting, these issues can be even more challenging. Below we provide a brief overview of how educational choices work among divorced parents.
Co-Parenting, Legal Custody, and Education
It is important to understand the difference between “physical custody” and “legal custody” in any family law proceeding involving children. Physical custody refers to the schedule and/or arrangement regarding with what parent the child resides. Legal custody on the other hand refers to the ability of the parents to make decisions on behalf of the children, including as they relate to medical and educational issues. Like physical custody, legal custody can be sole custody for one parent or joint custody, meaning the responsibility is shared.
It is far less common for a parent to be awarded sole legal custody of a child than sole physical custody. Often when one parent has sole or primary physical custody rights, both parents retain joint legal custody. The state generally wants both parents to remain involved in the decision-making responsibilities for a child even when the child spends most of their time with one parent, and there generally must be compelling evidence of one parent’s inability or unwillingness to participate in decision making in a healthy manner for a court to award sole legal custody to one parent. Also note that, in some cases, a court may award sole legal custody on a specific set of issues – i.e., one parent will have sole legal custody on the issue of education – while the parents retain joint legal custody on other issues. Therefore, co-parenting is a typical part of divorces involving minor children.
While it is uncommon for one parent to be awarded sole legal custody on an issue such as education, there may be important reasons to seek that out, such as where one parent refuses to participate at all in educational issues or consistently attempts to block a child’s education.
Co-Parenting on Educational Issues
If you are one of the majority of divorced parents with joint legal custody and co-parenting on the issue of education, you and the other parent are going to need to work together on educational issues such as: 1) what school the child attends (e.g. a public school in your neighborhood, or the other parent’s neighborhood, or a private school you both agree on); 2) what course of study that the child pursues in a given school; and 3) what extracurricular activities that the child will participate in at school (e.g. whether you will permit a child to participate on a high school football team or go on an out-of-town field trip).
As with physical custody issues such as the amount of time and scheduling of time with each parent, you can file a Request for Order (RFO) to go to court to have a judge decide what the appropriate choice is on behalf of the child, or to have the judge award you sole legal custody on all issues or just on the issue of education. This approach, however, should not be your first approach in attempting to work out an educational issue on behalf of your child. In addition to being expensive and time-consuming (you may not get before a judge for many months), the court wants both parents to work together whenever possible to reach a solution, and judges do not generally like being in the position of making choices on behalf of the children in place of the parents. In many cases, even when a parent has waited months for their day in court to have the judge order what should happen on a legal custody issue, the judge may simply tell both parents (and their counsel) to go out in the hallway and work out a solution.
It is of course best when the parents can work amongst themselves to decide educational issues, whether in an “informal” agreement, or, if need be, a stipulation and order that is submitted to the court. In doing so, it is best when parents can do their best to put aside desires to have “control” and “not the let the other parent” aside and instead focus on what is going to be the best decision to promote the child’s interests, while also being open-minded to the other parent’s thoughts and concerns and not let the unresolved drama and resentments of the marriage get in the way.
If that’s not possible, consider working together with a therapist skilled in coparenting issues and/or a mediator who can work with you on co-parenting in a collaborative environment in order to work out amicable solutions on a given topic and to find better ways of collaborating on an ongoing basis to help support your child’s education. You can also speak with a family law attorney with a reputation and skill set for working collaboratively and avoiding litigation unless it is necessary to reach a solution.
Guidance on Your Co-Parenting Questions from a Westlake Village Family Law Attorney
If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on any California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.