Parents in South Florida are gearing up to send their kids off to school in the coming week. For those who are recently divorced or in the process of getting divorced, you have more to contend with than just shopping for school lunches and it’s important to be as knowledgeable and prepared as possible.

In this post we share 5 must know considerations that will go a long way towards a smoother transition for you and your children as they head back to school.

1.     Divorced Parents Cannot Agree On A School: The judge will have an answer, but not the answer you think.

It is a common misconception that a ruling by the judge presiding over your divorce will ultimately determine what school your child will attend. A Post-Divorce Decree may not have designated a specific school agreed upon by both parents and this is actually the most common scenario.

What does that mean when parents cannot agree on a school?

With shared parental responsibility (most common unless ultimate or sole decision-making is awarded), both parents are responsible for conferring with one another to make all education and medical decisions. If the parents are unable to come to an agreement… It’s back to court.

Let’s say one parent wants to send their child to a school of the arts and the other is adamant they should attend a school of the sciences. Ultimately unable to agree, one parent files a motion for a judge to choose the school. Guess what? The judge doesn’t technically decide the school. Their role is simply to consider and award one parent ultimate decision making power regarding educational decisions.

2.    What Can Go Wrong: The parent with the power makes bad decisions.

There are two undeniable truths when it comes to family law…  Things change and people make mistakes. Perhaps you just wanted to keep the peace at the time of your divorce or maybe you suffered from what is termed “coyote syndrome,” whereby one parent feels willing to chew their own leg off to get away from a former spouse. In any case, you signed a bad deal which awarded your former spouse ultimate or sole decision-making power regarding educational decisions and you now feel the decisions made are to the detriment of your minor child.

What do you do?

You have the option of filing a Petition for Modification of the Parenting Plan.  However, be forewarned…more often than not this will mean you’re headed for a big legal battle as parents who believe that a former spouse is remiss in making educational decisions are also remiss in other areas of parenting.

3.     Know Your Rights: You may have more than you think!

Unless there is a court order to the contrary, each parent retains the right to school, dental and medical records – regardless of who is appointed the educational decision maker or who has 100% timesharing with the minor child. As a parent with access, you can remain apprised of your child’s educational development and be an active participant. You also retain the right to become involved in any program in which parents are invited into the school. This is another great opportunity to have a deeper role in your child’s education.

This right can be especially important where the parents are not married and there is pending litigation.  As long as a parent is listed on a birth certificate, they should be granted legal access to the medical and school records. Volunteering at school also provides an opportunity for an alienated parent to see their child and perhaps reconnect. At court, exercising this right can go a long way towards proving your love and commitment to your child in the eyes of the judge.

4.     Possible Minefield: Enrolling your child in a school outside county boundaries.

Unless specified in the Parenting Plan, a child should not attend a school outside of the county school boundaries where the child resides. Typical Parenting Plan language would designate one parent’s address as the “primary” residence for school boundary purposes. If both Mom and Dad’s residences are in Palm Beach County, a child should not been enrolled in a school beyond that boundary without a court order or the agreement of both parents.

What if the designated parent moved residences more than 50 miles away without a court order?

That’s a big no-no and a judge can sign an emergency pick up order. The parent who moved without prior court approval will be in violation of the law and can face severe consequences.

5.  Education and Your Parental Agreement: Make sure you consider everything!

While it is virtually impossible to anticipate every future parenting decision in an initial agreement, your attorney can and should guide the process with a sharp attention to detail. If a divorce lawyer is truly knowledgeable, your Parental Agreement will consider the specific rules and regulations in individual counties when it comes to school designation, as they are not universal. Without this, you could be in for a big surprise when your kids are enrolled in school.

In Florida, there is statutory language required in Parenting Plans outlining which parent’s address will be used for school boundary purposes. For example, Palm Beach County offers flexibility beyond the normal residential boundaries with the Choice Program. Under the program, the entire county is arguably within the residential school boundary for a parent who lives in Boca Raton. This means Dreyfoos High School is technically in the school boundary for any parent residing in Palm Beach County, therefore, as long as the child applies and is accepted into one of these programs; e.g. The Arts, STEM (science), Math or Dual Language; they can be enrolled (and in compliance as being within the boundary) regardless of the distance from a parent’s residence. Programs like this are only becoming more prevalent. As prevailing ideas on education in the U.S. continue to develop and shift, so must the way we address them when formulating parental agreements.

The annual tradition of sending the kids back to the classroom after summer break is already a hectic transition, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare for those divorced couples faced with co-parenting. If a divorce lawyer is diligent when preparing a parental agreement and ensures you clearly understand your rights, the back-to-school ritual can remain a time-honored tradition for everyone involved.

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