By Brenda L. Storey, Esq.
Parents consider seeking modifications of parenting time for various reasons. When thinking through whether or not to file for a modification, the discussion cannot just stop at what the parent wants. The parent needs to think long and hard about the “why.” Modifications are not easy on the subject children. No matter how much a parent thinks the child is shielded from the litigation, children are very well aware either directly or indirectly. The modification may include an expert, such as a Parental Responsibilities Evaluator, who will meet with the child. In that scenario, the child will be involved in the process, meeting with the Evaluator and being observed by the Evaluator while with each of the parents. If an expert is not involved, a parent may inappropriately inform the children of the pending litigation, or the child may simply sense the tension and concern in each parent. Litigation is stressful, and parents, try as they might, cannot keep that stress from being evident at some level.
A parent seeking to modify parenting time needs to think through what is the goal, and is that goal enough to risk the on-average six to nine month pending litigation impact on the children, as well as potential lingering effects. If the answer is not easily apparent, a good exercise is to list the pros and cons as relates to each child– pros of seeking more time with the child, pros of seeking less time with the other parent, cons of direct impact on the child, cons of indirect impact on the child. Each situation differs, but examples of pros are that the child, who has been struggling in school, would potentially improve her grades by having more time with the moving parent during the week; the other parent is negatively impacting the child’s self-esteem and less exposure to that parent will allow more time for therapy and healing; the child is already seeing a therapist and has been through one Evaluation in the initial divorce, which process was emotionally draining on the child; the other parent already pressures the child, and litigation would only result in more pressure. As can be seen, even the cons can lead to the conclusion that filing may be necessary for the ultimate betterment of the child’s circumstances. But the decision must not be taken lightly.
Research consistently shows that the most harmful component to children of divorce is conflict. The risk of continuing the conflict in post-decree litigation must, therefore, be outweighed by the anticipated benefit to the child.
It is understood that sometimes the “why” can be purely selfish, such as the parent simply wants more time with the child, or it is only fair to the parent to have more time. Those are very understandable feelings, but usually not enough to justify putting the child through the process. Another thought, less important than the impact on the child, is cost. Litigation is not cheap. A good question is whether the “why” justifies spending money now on the modification, which money could instead be saved for the child’s college education. Again, sometimes that question is more easily answered, such as when the child’s emotional and psychological health are impacted by the parenting schedule and change must be sought now for the benefit of the child. Other times, the answer takes more thought.
The statutes allow for modification, and for a reason. Children’s needs change over time, as do parents’ abilities to meet those needs. A parent considering pursuing modification needs to define his or her “why,” do the pro/con analysis, and have a real heart-to-heart with a lawyer who sees the big picture.