Back to School…Back to Court?

By September 16, 2014Child Custody

child custody attorney st louis moWith the start of a new school year, toddlers to teenagers fill with anticipation about what they hope will be a year filled with fun and success.  Certainly, their parents have similar worries but, as decision makers, have the power to make significant changes.  When the parents are no longer together and working under a Parenting Plan, making key educational decisions can become problematic.

Missouri has a stated preference for joint custody, which means that the General Assembly prefers parents work together and make joint decisions in the best interests of their children rather than one parent have that sole power.  But at times, the parents may not see eye-to-eye, and this can lead to problems.

A common point of departure is the choice of school to attend.  The parents may live in different school districts that have very different opportunities and track records for success.  Even though one parent may have the designation of residential custodian for educational purposes, that does not preclude a parent revisiting whether that designation furthers the best interests of the child.  Or one parent may want the child to attend private school or parochial school rather than public school.

When parents disagree about public versus private school, usually the Parenting Plan has provisions for resolving disputes, including mediation.  But what happens if the parents still cannot agree?  The parents could return to court on a motion to modify, or the objecting parent may relent with the understanding that the parent seeking private school will pay all tuition and related expenses.  Generally, courts cannot order a parent pay for private school when that parent objects to sending the child to that private school.

Another issue that arises at the onset of the school year involves academic assistance with learning disabilities, ranging from simple accommodations like extended times for tests to a full Individual Educational Plan (IEP) through special education.  Parents do not always agree about the extent of providing extensive special assistance, for a variety of reasons.  Parents in good conscience can disagree as to the relative value of different types of assistance and the impact it would have on the emotional and psychological well being of the child.  Unlike choosing and paying for a school, the provision of special education services directly impacts the best interests of the child and falls squarely within the authority of the court to decide, if necessary.

As one can readily see, even parents trying to work together for the best education for their children can reach stumbling blocks.  To avoid returning to court or extensive mediation, parents should try and anticipate these issues in advance and work through an extensive plan to address their concerns.  If parties by consent reach an agreement on school choice and payment, a court can approve such an arrangement as long as it furthers the best interests of the child.  Handling these matters during the initial custody determination reduces significantly the chance the parties will have these types of subsequent problems that could lead to a return to court.

If you have questions about educational issues and custody plans, contact us – we can help.