Quick summary: Dispute resolution steps in parenting plans are almost always worthless, but there is a solution that works.
Dispute Resolution Steps
The basic idea of dispute resolution provisions in a parenting plan is to lay out the steps you will follow in the event of a future parenting disagreement. The aim is to avoid going back to the court system when disputes inevitably arise.
My parenting plan included dispute resolution language that started by stating we agreed to “Joint Legal Custody” and that “The parent with whom the child is at any time residing will have day-to-day parental responsibility, and each will respect the other’s judgment… however, all decisions that have a significant, long-term impact on the child (education, health care, etc.) will be made by consensus unless in an emergency situation when the other parent is not able to be reached.”
It went on to say, “Neither party shall act unilaterally to disturb the child’s status quo . . . in the area of the child’s health, education, religion, or well being . . . in the event of disagreement, the following steps would be taken . . .”
The dispute resolution steps we agreed to were to:
1.) clearly identify the issue of disagreement” and then “use good faith to persuade each other” of our respective positions.
2.) If there was still disagreement, then we were to “identify an expert in the field of disagreement to assist us” in the dispute.
3.) If the difference persisted, we agreed to next “consult an individual known to both of us whom we trust to act as a mediator,”
4.) Failing that, we were to “employ a professional mediator” to help us reach a decision. Importantly, the professional mediator in this last step had no binding authority to force us to compromise.
If those dispute resolution steps sound crazy and impractical to you, you would be right. They came about because my daughter’s mother was contesting joint legal custody, and the only way she would allow me to have it is if I gave her the final say in disputes.
But I wasn’t willing to give her the final say because I felt that would amount to effective sole legal custody. After many rounds of back and forth, we ended up with that long list of toothless steps, and I gave her the final say on educational decisions only.
Guess what almost all our disagreements have been about over the years?
Yup, you guessed it: visitation schedules, money issues, and medical decisions (vaccines, etc.).
Compromise is how you avoid a trial. But compromise can also result in silly paragraphs like the dispute resolution steps we came up with.
For starters, the steps took way too long. Many disputes need near-term resolutions because you don’t tend to argue about things that are in the distant future. You typically argue about things that are happening this month, like what to do when there is snow in the forecast and one parent wants to cancel or postpone the weekend visit while the other does not. If your steps cannot handle near-term problems, then they won’t be very useful.
Furthermore, our steps did not work well when mom didn’t want to engage in the process, which always seemed to be the case from my point of view. People say, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” and this holds true in custody situations.
For example, for several years, we argued about the Christmas holiday. I interpreted our document one way while she read it the other way. I remember this was a problem for us the first Christmas after settling our first case in September. We didn’t even realize we had a dispute till the middle of December, so that didn’t leave much time to go through the steps in our parenting plan.
I tried to start the dispute steps in writing, and mom didn’t even acknowledge my email for days. When I tried to push from step two to three to four, she said it wasn’t possible to get through them all, given her busy schedule. She was happy with how things were (i.e., her interpretation of the holiday schedule).
She had no motivation to quickly attend a mediation session with me to solve this amicably. Even if she had participated in mediation, the mediator would have had no power to force us to compromise. As a result, she got her way that Christmas because possession is nine-tenths of the law, leaving me with nothing but resentment and the realization that our dispute steps were virtually worthless.
When we wrote our original parenting plan, our attorneys tried to tell us we will renegotiate our document several times over the years. They said, “Don’t worry about school years; you’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”
I think this was generally good advice, for most people anyway. But Mom and I were so oil-and-water back then that it was hard to imagine us agreeing on anything down the road. We needed practical dispute resolution steps that worked. Unfortunately, nothing we wrote ended up working at all for us.
Over the next four years after our initial parenting plan agreement, we had four more legal battles, all primarily due to disputes concerning the visitation schedule that our poorly designed dispute steps failed to help us solve ourselves.
We attended a few sessions with professional mediators over that period, but they did nothing for us because the mediators had no authority to make decisions about our problems. It was like going to couples counseling with someone you don’t want to be married to—what’s the point? We would both dig in our heels and leave the sessions no better off than before.
It was not until when we discovered something called a parenting coordinator that Mom and I finally started working together constructively, which will be the topic of our next post in a few weeks.
-Jim & Jessica
Jim and Jessica Braz are not lawyers. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, they do not give legal advice on this website. Furthermore, child custody laws, child support calculations, and family law, in general, vary from state to state. Be sure to consult an attorney in the appropriate state for your custody litigation.
Jim and Jessica Braz are not doctors. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, they do not give medical advice on this website. Be sure to consult your doctor on your specific medical situation.
Jim and Jessica Braz are not licensed therapists, mediators, or counselors. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, you should consult licensed professionals as needed.
The advice given on this website does not hold Jim and Jessica Braz legally liable for any adverse outcomes you may have from following their advice.
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