Divorce is one of the hardest things a child can go through. Here’s how a parenting coordinator can help, renowned Ontario lawyer Russell Alexander writesYou’re a responsible parent. You’ve made sure that your children are fed and clothed, healthy and well-educated. But now you’re faced with the hardest thing a child can go through: divorce.
You can get help. A parenting coordinator is a neutral third party who can work with you and your spouse to come up with a plan for life after divorce.
“Divorce is a fire exit,” Turkish playwright Mehmet Muran Ildan once wrote. “When a house is burning, it doesn’t matter who set the fire. If there is no fire exit, everyone in the house will be burned!”
Parenting coordinators are a key part of an approach known as collaborative divorce. In a traditional divorce, both sides can end up fighting in court over who deserves blame for the fire. Even in mediation, the two sides are still essentially locked in a legal battle.
But in collaborative law, the two sides work together to come up with a mutually agreeable plan. They can still go to court if they can’t agree, but they have to hire new legal teams.
Unlike the court system, the collaborative process is unique in that it offers the additional benefit of involving neutral professionals who specialize in associated areas, including parenting coordinators and financial experts.
These neutrals are able to address relevant areas of the family law matter, such as social workers, financial specialists or business valuators, often with more experience in their particular field than lawyers. Neutrals are also able to complete work at their hourly rate, rather than at the lawyer’s fee.
They are also able to take on some of the information gathering that would alternatively be completed by the spouses, which can be stressful. This makes including neutrals an efficient way to deal with issues in a cost-effective manner.
In Ontario family law, parenting coordinators are an increasingly popular concept. A quick search of the case law shows almost 150 Ontario instances in which a judge has referenced that term, almost all within the past five years.
What are parenting coordinators?
Generally consisting of individuals trained as social workers, psychologists and sometimes lawyers, parenting coordinators are appointed to help separated parents resolve any disagreements they have over the parenting of any children they share. Their mandate embraces a broad range of topics, but is relegated to the more minor issues that may crop up between disputing parents, such as issues around:
- established parenting schedules (such as drop-off times, parenting and access time and vacations);
- decisions relating to health care (including medical, dental and therapy or counselling); and
- educational decisions (such as choice of school, tutoring, summer school, enrichment and extra-curricular activities and religious instruction).
Perhaps most importantly, a parenting coordinator can assist couples to communicate better with each other and with their children, by essentially serving as arbitrators.
Parenting coordinators are appointed under a court order, or else by way of a parenting plan, separation agreement or arbitration award. Their role is to help with the implementation of existing orders and agreements – not to help create them.
They employ an arsenal of tools to help parents resolve their disagreements, including education, coaching and mediation. If these problem-solving methods fail, then a parenting coordinator has the authority to act as an arbitrator.
In Ontario, a judge is not authorized to order parents to use a parenting coordinator; rather, both parents must agree and give their consent. But once that consent is in place, a court may order one or both parents to execute paperwork or otherwise comply with the underlying contract that gives the parenting coordinator his or her authority and mandate to help resolve their disputes.
Parenting coordinators aren’t the only professionals who can help
For couples with complex finances, a financial expert can also be helpful.
Collaborative financial specialists may be accountants, financial planners, and business valuators, who have expertise in helping separating families address issues relating to the family business. They play a vital role in the collaborative process by ensuring that clients provide full and frank financial disclosure. Financial disclosure includes aspects such as income, liabilities and assets of both the spouses. A business valuator may value the business and, as in the case of many self-employed individuals, complete an income analysis to determine yearly income for support purposes. In the collaborative process, family business owners can work alongside the financial professional and/or business valuator to assist them in understanding the intricacies of the business based on its unique field. Financial specialists thoroughly vet the documents and prepare detailed reports which help to streamline settlement discussions.
Financial specialists further add value to the collaborative process by educating clients about their finances and helping to manage their expectations from a neutral perspective. This impartial stance helps to keep client expectations realistic, making negotiated settlement more likely.
Another key benefit of financial professionals is their ability to even the playing field. In some family matters, one spouse may have been much more involved in the finances of the family, especially if there had been a family business.
The other spouse may feel they are ill equipped to negotiate the finances generally or those associated with the business, and may worry about being taken advantage of by their spouse. A financial neutral can spend time separately with both parties to ensure that all the cards are on the table, and that each spouse understands the basis upon which they are negotiating.
Parenting coordinators and financial experts can’t solve your problems for you. But if you and your spouse still have a baseline of trust and mutual respect, they can work with you and your lawyers to come up with a plan for the future.
- Russell Alexander is the founder of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers in Ontario. He practices in the area of family law dealing with all aspects of divorce, including separation and divorce, child custody and access, spousal support, child support, and division of family property. Learn more about his book, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Divorce,” at russellalexander.com/book.