Authored by: Kurt Kwidzinski
It’s that time of year. Back to school. Between back-to-school shopping, registering your children for extracurricular activities, and cramming in all the last-minute summer events, prepping for a new school year can be chaotic. Not to mention, if you are divorced parents, or going through the divorce process, that adds additional stress.
In that context, common questions we get this time of year from parents experiencing divorce are:
How do we select schools?
Educational decision-making for a minor child, which includes school choice, is one of the four “significant” decision-making responsibilities a parent makes.
In most instances, divorced parents specify in writing which parent will be allocated educational decision making, or the allocation judgment specifies that it is a joint decision requiring the agreement of both parties.
In the event divorced parents have not allocated the decision between themselves, or cannot come to an agreement, the Court determines where the child will attend school.
How does a judge decide where a child goes to school?
There are many factors that influence the school choice. Of course, every case has its own unique set of circumstances, however, when the Court begins this process, they always consider the best interest of the child.
Additionally, the Court may consider factors like:
- Needs and desires of the child – What is the child’s level of maturity? Are they old enough and mature enough to express their independent wants and desires in a reasonable matter? If so, the Court may ask the child their school preference and why.
- The child’s adjustment – Has the child attended school in the past? It’s important that the Court takes that history into consideration. If necessary, what are the implications of removing the child from their current school? Will it be a complete change in school districts, taking the child away from their established community and activities? If the child is active in their community, that will also influence the court’s decision. The Court analyzes where the child spends their time and selects a school that will allow them to adapt quickly.
- Geographic location – The Court will select a school that will allow each parent to continue a relationship with their child. They consider the geographic location of the school in relation to the parties’ homes to ensure a cooperative arrangement. The school choice will allow the child to continue participating in their extracurricular activities. In considering this, The Court will analyze the difficulty and cost associated with transporting the child to and from school, residences, and activities.
- Past decision making and agreements – The level of each parent’s participation in past decisions will help determine future abilities. If one parent has been a sole decision-maker for the child, the Court will take that into consideration. They also consider any prior agreements or courses of conduct between the divorced parents.
- Overall health of the parents and child – Taking an audit of the physical and mental health of the divorced parents and child will help the Court make the best school choice. It’s important to consider the feelings and abilities of all parties involved. The Court considers how this decision will impact the family’s quality of life.
What Happens During the Pendency of the Divorce Before the Judge determines the school arrangements if the parties cannot agree?
No two divorce actions are the same. Each case presents its own unique set of facts, nuances, and complexities. As some cases take significantly longer than others to resolve, significant decisions for the children, including educational decisions, may need to be made along the way.
Absent an agreement between the parents, the Court has the authority to make temporary decisions on behalf of the child. They take into consideration all relevant factors (including those listed above) serving the best interests of the child.
In some cases, the Court will appoint a children’s representative or Guardian ad litem to investigate and make recommendations to the Court. However, the Court does not have to follow the recommendations of the children’s representative or Guardian ad litem.
What if the parents have differing education opinions?
Unless the parents can reach an agreement between themselves and/or with the assistance of a mediator, the Court will make the decision for them. The Court will consider all relevant factors, including those listed above.
How do parents divide costs of education?
This depends on several factors including:
- assets available
- if the parents put funds aside specifically for the purpose of paying educational expenses
- and the parent’s respective incomes.
In divorce or parentage cases, the Court, in its discretion, and in addition to the basic child support obligation, may order either or both parents to owe a duty of support to the child for reasonable school expenses. The purpose of these expenses are to enhance the educational development of the child. As a practical matter, Courts will often allocate educational expenses based on each parent’s respective access to funds, their incomes, or a combination of the two.
What Can I Expect at the Conclusion of my Divorce Case?
In most instances, parents can reach an agreement as to the allocation of significant decision-making responsibilities, including educational decision-making. Absent an agreement, in a divorce or parentage case, either one parent will ultimately have sole decision-making authority regarding educational decision-making (the parent with sole decision-making authority gets to make the choice), or the court may require the parties to share in the responsibility. This is known as joint decision-making.
In other instances, if the parents are allocated joint-decision making authority and still cannot see eye-to-eye on significant educational decisions, they typically are required to attend mediation to come to an agreement. Mediation serves to help the parties reach a resolution before filing a pleading to let the court adjudicate the issue.
In these situations, much like when the initial case was pending, the Court may appoint a children’s representative or Guardian ad litem to investigate and make recommendations to the Court. Ultimately, it will be up to the Court to decide the outcome.
Many factors come into play when it comes to school choice for children of divorced parents. If you are a parent going through a divorce, we can help you navigate the process.
Kurt Kwidzinski represents clients in all areas of family and matrimonial law. Learn more about Kurt and his expertise.