Adjusting parenting arrangements after a move
By April Cunningham, Associate Editor
Custody disputes arising after one parent moves away can be some of the most “intractable” conflicts often leading to arbitration or litigation, says Oakville family lawyer and mediator Cathryn Paul.
“It’s a tough issue,” says Paul, who practises under Cathryn L. Paul, Lawyer, Mediator, Arbitrator and Oakville Mediation. “It’s often hard to find a grey zone, or room for settlement between the parties, because it usually appears to be an all-or-nothing scenario.”
Such situations tend to come up when one parent either accepts a job in another area or moves to be closer to a new partner, she tells AdvocateDaily.com. Often, the resettlement can disrupt an established shared parenting arrangement that's been in place for years.
Conflicts can also creep up for parents living in different communities when it comes time to deciding where the child attends school, she says. Or, when separating spouses sell the matrimonial home and are forced to relocate due to the hot housing market and low supply in their neighbourhood.
Paul says it’s important for parties to understand that in any dispute that goes to court, the judge will consider what is in the best interests of the child.
“Perhaps one of the parents is happier with their new partner, but is that what is best for the kids? It gets fairly complex,” she says. Courts consider job circumstances, family support and other factors in custody and access decisions when one parent moves away, “but all in all it comes down to what's best for the children.”
In mediation, Paul says she helps parents consider possible alternative parenting arrangements.
For example, the children may stay with one parent more during the week and the other parent more on the weekend. They may split their time differently in the summers, or one parent may also move to the new community just to be closer to the kids.
“The end goal is to preserve the relationship with the children,” she says.
Sometimes when one parent relocates, it adds pressure on the other who is left with the more mundane responsibilities, Paul adds.
“We make assumptions sometimes that each parent wants to have the kids all the time, and that’s not always the case,” she says. “From the children’s point of view, they benefit from having exposure to both parents, but it can be hard for the one who is left to take on all the tasks.”
If the school calls because a child is sick, only one parent is left to address it, for example, whereas previously, both could share that duty, she says.
As children get older, it’s likely they will want to be away from their community less frequently, Paul says. So parents should consider the impact of visitation away from home on their child’s friendships, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs.
“With older children, it can be helpful to have their views and preferences brought into mediation by having a third-party meet with them, and communicate what their thoughts are,” she says. While the kids don’t get to make the choice, their input can inform the parents who often gets stuck on their own perspectives.
Paul recommends parents work together as much as possible, and that the one moving away considers their decision carefully.
“Tell your partner first, rather than move and tell later,” she says. “Talk about ways you can try to make it work.”
Intact families make these kinds of decisions routinely so there is no reason separated spouses can’t discuss relocations that affect the children as one unit, Paul says.
“We can work on different solutions, but they’re challenging issues and sometimes parents struggle to come up with answers on their own.”