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Probate and Family Court Standing Order 1-17 Sets Rules for Parent Coordinators

A parent coordinator can be a blessing in high-conflict divorce or support cases involving parenting and custody of a child or children. Occasionally, parents, for one reason or another, are unable to communicate effectively about parenting time, extracurricular activities, or expectations of each other or the children. At other times, parents simply may not see eye-to-eye about what is in the best interests of the children. These disagreements, or differences as to how to communicate, can have serious repercussions on the stability of the children and make it difficult, if not impossible, to co-parent. A skilled parent coordinator can be a very valuable resource in addressing these issues and helping to resolve conflicts.

A parent coordinator can take on many roles, but their function can best be summarized as serving as a professional third-party neutral who is appointed by the court to provide parenting coordination services, which are focused on minimizing the effects or potential effects of conflict on the child or children involved in the parenting plan. The areas of conflict that a parent coordinator can help address include minor changes to the parenting plan, exchanges or transitions of the child or children, travel, education, extracurricular activities, mental health wellness, and any other aspects of a child's life where disagreements may occur between the parents.

For years, parent coordinators have been a welcome resource, greatly valued by judges, attorneys, and, especially, parents. However, a recent decision of the Supreme Judicial Court, Bower v. Bournay Bower, caused a great deal of upheaval in the field of parent coordinators. The court ruled, in a nutshell, that a parent coordinator could not have binding authority to resolve disputes over the objection of another party. This meant that, unless both parents agreed to the appointment of a parent coordinator, the parent coordinator would lack authority to resolve disputes. After all, if a parent disagreed with the decision of a parent coordinator, there was nothing anyone could do about it. I wrote a more detailed summary and analysis of the Bower case, which can be found on page 23 of the December 2016 edition of the Massachusetts Law Review.

However, the court in Bower did remark that parent coordinators were a very valuable resource, and invited the Probate and Family Court to draft rules and regulations concerning parent coordinators, their roles, their powers, the limits of their powers, and the allocation of their costs. The Probate and Family Court did just that, recently issuing Probate and Family Court Standing Order 1-17, which becomes effective on July 1, 2017, and which answers many questions left lingering after the Bower decision and provides a clear set of rules and guidelines governing parent coordination.

In broad strokes, the Standing Order serves as a guideline for the whole field of parent coordinating. It outlines the qualifications and application process for becoming a parent coordinator who can be appointed by the courts. It delineates the process that parents (or their attorneys) need to follow in order to have a parent coordinator appointed. It limits the permitted duties of parent coordinators. It sets forth the required duties of parent coordinators. It also prohibits parent coordinators from making certain decisions or engaging with the court in certain respects. It also reinforces the notion that a parent coordinator's recommendation or decision is not enforceable unless it is submitted for approval and incorporated into an order or judgment of the court.

Most importantly, it provides that parent coordinators can be appointed either by agreement or by court order after a contested hearing. In the first case, the result is simple. The second case is more interesting - it is clear now that a parent coordinator may be appointed over the objection of one of the parties. However, the objecting party (because of the Bower decision), cannot be forced to pay for the fees or costs of the parent coordinator. Thus, in contested matters, there will be some situations where the parent who wants a parent coordinator is compelled to cover the full cost of the appointment. A parent with resources may welcome the opportunity to have a third party neutral intercede on certain issues. But for many other parents, the process could open itself to abuse and perverse incentives. Courts and attorneys will undoubtedly come up with ways to arrest these potential sources of conflict, but it may be a long time before we have set guidelines in place for addressing them.

This is an evolving area of the law, and skilled counsel can be instrumental in helping parents navigate these issues. For now, it seems that the best way to resolve these issues is to appoint a parent coordinator by agreement in order to help resolve their disputes, in effect, "agreeing to disagree."

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