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Extracurricular Activites and Your Denver Child Custody Case

By:  Sarah T. McCain

goal-1549525I recently ran across news article on the internet which briefly told the story of a family juggling the often difficult balancing act of activities and custody.  In that family’s story, though not told in detail, the judge had issued a one year ban on the minor child’s participation in golf, a sport in which she excelled.   In fact, her level of excellence was such that she was already gaining the attention of the professional golf world and various coaches.  Her father had been her coach and presumably the parent who took her to tournaments and oversaw her training.   The one year ban resulted from a disagreement between the parents as to her ongoing participation in the sport and its impact on parenting time.

My initial human, non-legal reaction was shock and anger for the little girl.  I get a judge potentially punishing parents for bad behavior, but not a 10 year old girl with so much promise. It’s clear that the only one who is suffering from the court’s ruling and the on-going disagreement is the minor child.   As an attorney, I disagree with the judge’s ruling and believe it is not in a child’s best interest to ban her from engaging in a sport which is clearly important to her and something she loves.   The article raised questions for me about each of the parents and which one was to blame, if not both, for the legal conflict.  I also know the article may have raised many questions for those who read it related to how judges in Colorado deal with activities, including their impact on parenting time and finances. It’s important to understand the ins and outs of this issue so that your child is not caught in the middle of a difficult situation.

It’s not uncommon for Colorado child custody lawyers to hear stories of activities leading to breakdowns in communication and the decision-making process.  In some cases, disputes are caused because people fashioned agreements to agree on activities in the future.  Often, agreeing to agree to something in the future is a good way to set you and the other party up for future court intervention. This can be avoided by speaking with a qualified Colorado family law attorney who can draft up an agreement which will include the details that are important to you.  Conversely, when joint decision making is the norm, most courts are not going to enter orders with the specificity that may be needed.   Thus, unless both parties are willing to agree to specific details or activities, they will be left with orders which may be ambiguous, whether arrived at via settlement or a court hearing.

When thinking about activities and your custody case, there are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Some judges view decisions regarding activities to be “major decisions,” which require both parents approval, at least when they impact visitation.   Some judges believe that they have no authority to forcibly order a parent to pay for an activity or to require parental participation unless the activity is tied into the child’s educational development.  Others may believe they can resolve a family law activity dispute, regardless of statute.
  2. While courts might be willing to forcibly enter orders regarding a child’s traditional activities, almost all judges are going to require mutual agreement between the parents as to any future, new activities which impact the time of the other parent.
  3. Sole decision making alone may not be enough to force the other parent to take a child to an activity during his or her parenting time.
  4. Some judges may rule that even with traditional activities, the parties must agree on a season by season basis for the child to continue and some judges may require agreement as to cost as a separate issue from agreement to participation.
  5. Most court generally believe that so long as an activity takes part solely during your parenting time, and so long as it’s not something unsafe, such as tiger wrestling, you have full reign to sign your children up for an activity.  As such, and if you agree that activities are a joint decision-making topic, you will also need some sort of language giving you the autonomy to sign your child up for things taking place solely on their time.

There is no right or wrong language when formulating settlement terms tied into kids’ activities.  Some of the items to be considered when agreeing to language regarding activities are specifics as to cost and communication methods to memorialize agreements.  Likewise, it’s important to include language regarding  time frames for reimbursement from the other parent regarding those costs.  Depending on how far your child goes in an activity, the costs can range from a one-time registration fee to thousands of dollars for uniforms, equipment, and uniforms, and travel related to out of town tournaments or games.  Before agreeing to be financially bound for an activity, you want to make sure that you are fully prepared to support this activity financially.  You will also want to make sure that you have the time commitment to allow your child to fully participate in an activity. If you agree to an activity, it’s generally expected that you will provide transportation and will have the child participate during your time, within reason.

To avoid disputes over whether agreement to a certain activity occurred or what specifically was agreed to, it’s preferable to spell out how agreements will be made.  Generally, emails between the parties will work.  Keep in mind that if you sent that email agreeing you are stuck.   It is also advisable for your custody agreement to include language requiring agreement as to participation in the activity, agreement as to cost (base costs and additional costs), and how long the agreement runs for, whether by session, season, or calendar year.

When one party does not agree to an activity, the reason for the disagreement will likely be addressed by the court.  Is the party disagreeing just because? Is it due to cost or due to its impact on parenting time?  Is there some other valid basis for disagreeing?If you bring this issue to the court, these items will need to be discussed and relevant evidence will need to be presented.   If the reason for the objection is just to be difficult, then you may want to argue that the court issue an order for participation by all parties, with costs divided appropriately. If successfully proven that being difficult is the motivation for the objection party, the  court will likely be greatly displeased by the actions of that party.  If the objection is due to cost, then certainly the parties’ finances can be reviewed to determine the validity of the objection.  Alternative plans can often be put into the order or agreement to meet the needs of the parents’ budgets, while still allowing the minor child to participate.

Obviously there are exceptions to this based on the activity.  If the objection to an activity is due to the impact on parenting time, it may be harder to overcome such, as the court will generally not force a parent to give up their parenting time plans for an activity which is not mutually agreed upon. The amount of parenting time held by the objecting parent will need to be assessed as well, mapped up with the duration of the activity.  If a parent’s time is taken up almost completely by the activity, alternative arrangements may have to be devised in order to allow the child’s participation, such as temporarily changing the parenting time for the period of time that the activity is in session.

It’s  important to be smart about the activities, in terms of the temporal, logistical, and financial commitments on both parties. It’s never wise to plan too much on the other parent’s time and expect full cooperation and payment.  Additionally, it’s best to have a detailed and specific plan in place as to how activities are going to be paid for and planned, so as to avoid disagreement for the many years in which a child may participate in them. Without these details, the result may be the court stepping in to solve the problem for you.  If your activity disputes end up in the hands of the judge, you may end up with a result much worse than if you came to a compromise.   Though I don’t see the judges I know telling that 10 year old girl she is banned from golfing for a year, I can envision some of them saying she will only golf on dad’s time.  Fortunately we are here, and not in Virginia.