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A previous article outlined the difference in parenting time and legal decision making.  This article will continue on that subject by outlining methods to assist in resolving conflicts regarding parenting time and legal decision-making.

It is possible to reach agreements on parenting time or legal decision making without going to court.  Mediation exists as a mechanism for resolution of issues arising concerning parenting time and legal decision-making after a matter has been filed, or even in some cases after divorce, legal separation or paternity matter has been finalized.  If the parties are contemplating a change to existing parenting time or legal decision making orders, either party may utilize a free service of the conciliation court through the county and have a mediation conference ordered by the Court which is conducted by a third-party mediator who can work with the parties in helping to assist them in potentially hammering out an agreement on those issues identified as needing resolution.

Private mediation also exists, which is more expensive than the free services offered by the conciliation court. It’s a third party, private pay cost, but may be an alternative for people that don’t want to go through conciliation court or need more time or more expertise depending on the issues.

When mediation doesn’t work and court intervention is required, there are numerous factors that the court will look at in making a decision about parenting time or legal decision making.  Among the factors the Court will look at in determining what best supports the best interest of the minor child or children are the following:

  1. The past present and future relationship between the parents and the child;
  2. The relationship between the minor child or children and the child’s parents, siblings, other people who could affect their interest;
  3. The minor children’s or child’s adjustment to home, school and community;
  4. If the child is of a suitable age and maturity, the child’s input and wishes as to legal decision making and parenting time;
  5. The mental and physical health of the individuals involved;
  6. Which parent is more likely to allow frequent and meaningful parenting time with the minor child(ren) and the other parent;
  7. Whether or not any of the parties intentionally misled the court to create an expense or increase in litigation or unnecessary delay;
  8. Whether or not there has been domestic violence that has taken place either with the minor child or children and the parties or the parties themselves; and
  9. Whether or not someone has utilized or exerted coercion or duress on the other parent to obtain an agreement.

These are the main factors that the court will look at in making a decision about parenting time or legal decision making as it concerns supporting the best interests of the minor child or children.

As stated above, one of the factors the Court takes into consideration is the wishes of a child who is deemed to be of suitable age and maturity.  Should the court determine such conditions exist, a court interview with the child can be ordered and conducted.  Typically the child is interviewed by a conciliation court where they speak with someone with medical training to whom the minor child or children can give their input on what they would like to see as far as parenting time and legal decision making.

There are also a best interest attorneys, which can be appointed to represent children and who will actually make recommendations to the court with respect to what they feel is in the child’s best interests in terms of parenting time and legal decision making.  They don’t represent the parties, but they represent the child and their best interests. There is also a child’s attorney which is slightly different in that they don’t necessarily make recommendations to the Court, but they are appointed to represent the child, advocate for the child, participate in hearings, examine, and cross examine witnesses.  These are some other means by which the minor child or children can be given a voice.

If a matter is going to be heard by the court, the court needs to know what each party is seeking. So if both parties are in disagreement, which they typically are, on either parenting time or legal decision making, both sides will need to submit a separate parenting plan where they are actually stating in writing what they think is in the child’s best interests as far as a proposed parenting time schedule and legal decision making. The parties will file pretrial statements, which also identify the contested issues before the court, witnesses and exhibits they’re going to be utilizing for the hearing. In most cases, an affidavit of financial information is also needed in order to reflect a party’s income for purposes of child support and which is used in support of a position for Attorney’s Fees.

In many cases, circumstances change after a divorce decree is entered or parenting agreement is reached and, as with anything in life, things change. So either side has the ability to file an action to modify either the terms of a Decree or Order, and specifically in this case, a parenting time schedule or legal decision making order through filing a post decree or post order action to modify parenting time or legal decision-making.

While you can seek to modify either parenting time or legal decision-making there are time limitations. Typically, Courts will not entertain an action to modify parenting time or legal decision-making in less than one (1) year from the date the Decree or Order was entered.  After that waiting period, you can then go ahead and file your actions to modify, unless there are essentially emergency circumstances that have arisen that command the Court’s attention prior to that time.

Attorney Zac Spanier of the West. Longenbaugh and Zickerman Law Firm, represents clients in matters related to domestic relationships, family law,orders of protection, injunctions against harassment, criminal misdemeanors and domestic violence related matters.