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The challenge of selecting a school in equal placement and joint custody situations

Equal shared placement with parents for children in divorce can mean stability, until it’s time to start school. What happens then?

Parents are faced with many decisions on a daily basis regarding their children. Making a decision as to what is in the best interest of your child is never easy even under the most amicable of conditions. Couple a tough decision with two parents with joint custody who do not agree, and you have an impossible situation.

After a marriage dissolves, the dynamic changes, but that doesn’t mean family relationships are going away. Dad continues to be dad. Mom continues to be mom. And if the plan in divorce is for the parents to share equal placement and joint legal custody of the children, the potential for tense situations cannot be dismissed. Deciding where children go to school is a dilemma we see as family law attorneys frequently.

These realities speak to the value of solid parenting plans from the outset, but also the importance of recognizing that sometimes conditions arise that require a post-judgment modification.

Take for example the case of a child who was a toddler or younger when mom and dad got divorced. Parenting plans at that point might have provided for shared equal placement and not have involved decisions about school. Now the tot is five and ready to start school. Where will he or she be enrolled?

This might not be a major concern if both parents live in the same school district. But what if the parents live in separate districts? Or, what if one parent feels strongly that private schooling is the way to go, rather than public? How do these issues get resolved? If school attendance somehow conflicts with existing shared placement conditions, maybe it’s time for a change of plans.

When making a determination as to which school (or school district) children attend, the courts look to what is in the best interest of the children. That’s a worthy objective, but it isn’t always easy to meet. That’s not too surprising since everyone involved may have a different opinion about what “best interest” means.

When faced with this dilemma, all Wisconsin courts require the parties to engage in mediation to attempt to resolve this dispute. If mediation is unsuccessful then the court will have to appoint a Guardian ad Litem. It is unlikely that the court will make a determination as to what is in the best interest of the child without the input of a Guardian ad Litem. This process will take at least three to six months. Therefore, you cannot file a motion in May expecting a decision before the start of the school year.

Options for compromise?

Options worth considering when negotiating school placement options include:

  • The child spends weekdays with one parent and weekends with the other
  • The child spends the school year with one parent and specified vacation times with the other

What is certain in all of this is that where such challenges surface and placement plans need to change, the objective of minimizing conflict is all important. Finding legal counsel experienced in techniques of collaborative family law dispute resolution to help is always advised.

Keywords: Equal placement, joint custody, post-judgment modification, mediation, best interest of the child