Although a “final judgment of divorce” terminates a legal marriage between spouses, all too often, the parties will remain embroiled in litigation for years to come, particularly with respect to issues surrounding the care and custody of their minor children. Even the most well-drafted parenting plan cannot anticipate and preemptively resolve all of the disputes that inevitably arise when raising children, and the failure, inability, or outright refusal of one or both parents to communicate and reach an agreement with respect to these matters (such as whether Susie can get her ears pierced, if Johnny can sign up for football, and which parent should be responsible for picking up the children on a snow-day) can lead to repeated court appearances and thousands of dollars in legal fees. While child-related issues can always been modified upon a material change in circumstances, and some matters genuinely require the court’s intervention, many of these “day to day” disputes can be efficiently and cost-effectively resolved by the appointment of a “Parenting Coordinator” (“PC”).
A Parenting Coordinator is a neutral individual, usually someone with experience both as a mediator and in child custody matters, who works with divorced parents to help them address and resolve post-settlement issues involving custody and parenting time. In some cases, a Parenting Coordinator may be given binding authority to resolve disputes if the parties are unable to reach a mediated agreement.
Although Judges are increasingly appointing Parenting Coordinators as ongoing mediators and/or arbitrators in contested cases, the legal footing of this practice is unclear as there is presently no statutory authority permitting same. However, a bill may soon be filed in the state legislature which, if passed, would grant the Court the authority to appoint a Parenting Coordinator under certain circumstances. The proposed bill also sets forth with specificity the role, duties and scope of authority of a Parenting Coordinator appointed to serve in this capacity.
The proposed bill, which is still in draft form, will permit the Probate and Family Court to appoint a Parenting Coordinator in divorce, custody and paternity cases upon the written consent of the parties. While the PC would assist the parties in addressing disputed, child-related issues, the appointment of a Parenting Coordinator would not divest the court of its exclusive jurisdiction over the entry and enforcement of orders related to the parties and any child, nor would the PC have the authority to modify child custody orders of the court. The proposed bill further provides: “When a child-related issue is disputed, the parenting coordinator shall first attempt to facilitate agreement between the parties, but absent agreement, the parenting coordinator shall resolve the contested issue. After a decision by the parenting coordinator, either party may, by motion, submit the disputed issue for de novo review by the court. Notwithstanding a motion filed by a party, the interim decision of the parenting coordinator shall remain effect until the court enters an order.” Parenting Coordinators would not be appointed in cased filed under M.G.L. 209A (Domestic Violence/Abuse Prevention Cases) and the appointment would initially be limited to a term not to exceed sixteen months.