As a parent, you’re used to making decisions for your child, both large and small. When you divorce or separate from your child’s other parent, though, things often change. Especially when you have a joint custody arrangement, certain decisions need to be made together with your co-parent. The bigger the decision, the more lead time it may take.
There are two types of child custody: physical and legal. Physical custody simply means who the child is living with and includes those add to day decisions. Minor decisions, such as bedtime, or whether PopTarts are an acceptable breakfast, generally fall to the parent with whom a child is staying on a given day (though it’s always helpful if you can get on the same page).
Legal custody refers to who has the right to make major decisions for the child, including decisions about medical care, religious upbringing—and education. Most Minnesota parents with a custody order have joint legal custody. If you are one of them, it’s important to figure out how to work together in your child’s best interests. One major decision, whether a child should change schools, and if so, to which school, definitely needs to have both parents on board if they have joint legal custody.
Changing schools is one of those decisions that must be made jointly if parents have joint legal custody. The most common reason that one parent wants to change a child’s school is that he or she wants to move. The move may not be enough to disrupt parenting time, but would put the child into another school district or closer to a different school in the same district in which they currently attend.
This is one of those situations in which both parents typically think they have a reasonable position. For the parent seeking the change, it makes sense that they would want their child in a school closer to their new home. For the other parent, it makes sense that they would not want the child further away. This could limit the parent’s ability to pick the child up from school and to participate in school-related activities. Unfortunately, what often happens is that both parents dig in their heels, and refuse to see that the other parent may have a reasonable position, too. They also often fail to consider that there may be educational advantages that make one school more desirable for the child’s educational development.
What really matters in this analysis is what is in the best interests of the child. Both parents need to step back and consider multiple factors. If you and your ex-spouse both focus on your child’s interests rather than your own, you may have an easier time reaching a resolution.
How smoothly the decision-making process will go depends on a few things: your reason for wanting the change, any reason your co-parent may have to oppose it, your ability to focus on your child’s educational needs, and the goodwill that exists between the two of you. (This last factor is why it is so important to maintain as cordial a relationship as possible with your ex: so that when you have to work together on an issue, you can.)
The types of conflicts we often see around a request to change schools involve a request to move the child further away from the other parent. This can create an inconvenience or even substantially limit the other parents' access to school activities. A request to move the child to a private or more expensive school can create a concern about money (especially if the other parent is being asked to pony up cash for the change).
We often find that it is more helpful for our clients to focus on the interests that the new school will serve (e.g. a better education or safer environment for the child) than the parent’s position (insisting on a particular school). “Positions” encourage the other parent to assume an opposing position, and for both to dig in their heels. “Interests” encourage working together to meet a common goal (what’s best for the child).
Depending on your relationship with your co-parent, you may not be able to iron out these issues without help. Agreeing to move your child to a new school is an issue that is ideal for family mediation. In mediation, a neutral third party facilitates a negotiation between you and your co-parent, helping you identify resolutions but not taking sides. If you have a parenting coordinator involved in your case, he or she may also be able to help with this issue.
If you and your co-parent cannot reach agreement about changing your child’s school, your options are either to leave your child in their current school, or to go to court to request a modification of custody or permission to change schools.
Remember that it is necessary to put the wheels in motion for a school change well before the end of the previous school year, especially if you think you may need to move to also modify custody. It’s often recommended to start the process by March or even earlier, so don’t spring this idea on your co-parent at the last minute. Remember that a court hearing such a motion will also focus on the question of whether a school change, and custody change, is in the best interests of the child.
If you have questions about changing your child’s school when you have joint custody with a co-parent, we invite you to contact Mundahl Law to schedule a consultation.