Losing fulltime access to your kids is the most painful part of divorce for most parents. Suddenly you’re stuck with being what feels like a "visitor" in your child’s life. What are your legal rights when you’re a part-time parent because of divorce?
The Court Order Rules
What’s written in the court order on custody, sometimes called a "parenting plan" or "visitation schedule," is what’s legally enforceable. So it’s very important to think through any difficulties you and your soon-to-be-ex may have making a visitation schedule work before you put your plan to paper.
Issues that should be dealt with in detail in your court order if you’re the noncustodial parent include:
- Exact days and times the children will spend with you. Phrases like "reasonable visitation" don’t get you far when you’re dealing with an uncooperative custodial parent.
- What holidays the children will spend with you, and the exact days and times these holidays will begin and end
- What contact the children can have with you during the time they’re with the custodial parent, including phone calls and emails
- Your ability to participate in the childrens’ school and extra-curricular activities, and the custodial parent’s duty to inform you of these events
- Your access to school and medical records
- Who will provide transportation for the children, especially if you live far away and transportation is expensive
Enforcing Your Visitation Rights
If you’ve already got a custody order, how do you enforce it when the custodial parent doesn’t honor it? If it’s an occasional problem, try to be flexible in rearranging your schedule. Make sure you make up the missed time as soon as possible.
If the problem persists, you’ll want to document the violations of the order before seeing an attorney. An easy way to document violations of a custody order is with a simple calendar, writing notes about the time lost with your child and your efforts to reschedule the visits. After you can show a pattern of behavior, you can work with a lawyer to get the order enforced in court.
In many states, consistent violations of a custody order can be grounds for changing custody, especially if the custodial parent is alienating the children with negative remarks and withholding information about the children from the noncustodial parent.
In most states, the police will assist you in enforcing a visitation order. But you’ll want to think carefully about the impact the appearance of police officers on their doorstep may have on your children. Sometimes simply threatening to get the police involved will coerce the custodial parent into honoring the visitation order.
One mistake many non-custodial parents make is to threaten to withhold child support when the custodial parent withholds visitation. There is no legal connection between the right to see your child and paying your child support, and a judge may hold your failure to pay your child support against you when you finally make it to court to enforce your visitation rights.
Modifying Visitation Schedules
As your children grow and mature, it will probably be necessary to change the visitation schedule to meet their needs. If the custodial parent is cooperative, it’s best to work out an agreement between you, rather than going to court and having a judge decide. Either way, you’ll want to get the new arrangement in writing.
Reasons for modifying a visitation schedule can include:
- Changes in the living arrangements or work schedules of either parent
- The wishes of children mature enough to decide they’d like to spend more time with you
- Extra-curricular activities or changing medical needs of the children
- Children becoming older and desiring more time with a same-sex parent
Lowering Your Child Support
State laws vary greatly on when it’s appropriate to ask the court to lower your child support. In general, you may be entitled to lower your child support when:
- Your income has decreased significantly
- The custodial parent’s income has increased significantly
- Your expenses have increased for reasons out of your control (chronic illness, forced transfer to an area with a higher cost of living and so forth)
- The costs of supporting your child have increased significantly (very rare