When parents divorce, lawyers will very likely advise them on developing a child placement schedule. On even years, you get the kids on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, and on odd years, you get them for their birthdays and Christmas Eve. Sounds good, right?
The problem is that people are not clairvoyant. They don’t know that in two years their work schedule will change, that they’ll have a best friend’s (or their own) wedding to attend, that they’ll be required to attend an out-of-town professional conference.
Most divorced parents, in fact, find themselves renegotiating placement on a monthly basis. The ones who do it most easily are the ones who follow these two rules.
#1 Remember it’s about the kids. As a parent, your number one priority is your children. When you (or your ex) want to renegotiate placement, let what’s in the best interest of your children be your guide. If your placement agreement says the other parent gets one seven-day vacation per year but he or she now has an opportunity to take your children on a 10-day trip to Europe, think about what’s best for the kids. It’s probably going on that 10-day trip.
#2 What comes around goes around. If you are giving up a week with your kids, you should pick up a week someplace else, and vice versa. Just as certainly as your ex will need at least an occasional modification, you will too. If the other parent wants to have the children on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year, then you should have both next year.
If you follow those rules, and cannot successfully renegotiate placement—and you believe renegotiation is in the best interest of the child—you can take the issue to the family court.
The family court will want you to attend a mediation session. In mediation, it’s just you and the other parent (sans divorce lawyers) and the mediator. The mediator will listen to concerns from both of you and try to help you reach an agreement. If it’s going well, you can choose to continue with the mediator if you wish.
If mediation is unsuccessful, you’ll need to file a motion to change placement. This is where it gets more complicated. A guardian ad litem (attorney) will be assigned to represent your kids. That person will investigate and submit recommendations to the court, and the court will hold a hearing to determine whether the recommendations will be adopted or a custody trial is needed.
In La Crosse County, courts may also appoint a custody assessment team, usually consisting of a mediator, guardian ad litem and child psychologist. They investigate and make recommendations together.
In making decisions, Wisconsin courts will look at a number of factors, including
Wishes of the parents
Wishes of the children
Emotional health of all the family members
The amount and quality of time each parent has spent with the children in the past, along with each parent’s future plans to spend time with the children
Children’s ages and developmental needs
Whether mental illness or substance abuse affects the children’s well-being
Whether child abuse or domestic abuse has occurred in either home
The cooperation and communication of the parents
Clearly courts are also focused on what is in the best interests of the children, but if you let a court decide, you stand a much greater chance that neither of you will get a satisfying outcome.
By Sonja Davig, Partner, Johns, Flaherty & Collins, SC. For a La Crosse divorce lawyer, call her at 608-784-5678.