Florida-based family law attorney and parenting coordinator Vera Bergermann answers questions about the role of the parenting coordinator in divorce: what they do, who they help, and how they work.
Hosted By: Diana Shepherd, Editorial Director, Divorce Magazine
Guest Speaker: Vera Bergermann, Family Lawyer, Parenting Coordinator
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Read the Transcript of this Podcast Below.
Intro: My name is Diana Shepherd, and I’m the Editorial Director of Divorce Magazine and Family Lawyer Magazine. Joining me today is family law attorney and parenting coordinator Vera Bergermann, who will be answering questions about the role of the parenting coordinator in divorce: what they do, who they help, and how they work. The founder of Bergermann Law Firm in Fort Myers, Florida, Vera began practicing law in 1980, and has been practicing family law exclusively since 1996. She has been a qualified parenting coordinator for 10 years, a certified family law mediator for more than 20 years, and she holds a Master’s degree in Taxation and a Bachelor’s in Psychology.
Diana Shepherd: What is a parenting coordinator?
Vera Bergermann: A parenting coordinator is a person who has received special training in the area of parenting coordination and is already either a licensed professional in law, in child development, or psychology generally. It could be a minister or a physician.
What qualifications do you have to have to become a parenting coordinator?
Mostly it is this specialized training that we have received, but we all draw upon our backgrounds in our specialties. I, of course, am an attorney, and I bring knowledge of the law to my parenting coordination couples. Mental health professionals will, of course, bring their knowledge of child development and psychology to their parenting coordination clients.
Who would need the help of a parenting coordinator, and how much decision-making power does a parenting coordinator have?
The people who use parenting coordinators are people who have demonstrated difficulties in co-parenting. Frequently the parenting coordinator concept is suggested by their attorneys, or it can be suggested by a judge. An attorney would make a motion to the court to have a parenting coordinator appointed if the other side does not agree. If, of course, the people agree, they can enter into an agreement to have a parenting coordinator appointed by order of the court. It is the parenting coordinator who tries to steer them toward a decision that is in the best interest of their children. An example of what I mean by that is if somebody does not want to vaccinate their children, and this is a source of great conflict between the parents. So one parent would call upon the parenting coordinator and say, ‘we’re having a big issue regarding vaccination, please call a meeting’. A parenting coordinator would then reach out to the other parent and say ‘we need to have a meeting regarding the issue of vaccination of the children’, and then a meeting would be coordinated. When that meeting occurs, the parenting coordinator would find out number one, what each party believes the issue is. If one parent says ‘I want to make certain that our children are vaccinated’, and the other one says, ‘I believe that this is not a good idea for our child, that there are alternatives, etc.’, then the parenting coordinator would listen to each of them, and then would try to help guide them to a decision that they could both live with. Looking for those areas where she can find agreement between the parties is what the parenting coordinator would do. But the parenting coordinator would not be making a decision like ‘yes, these are the vaccinations that will be given’, or ‘no there will be none given, that will not happen’. However, if a parenting coordinator feels that a child or children are being endangered by the parents in some way because of something that has happened, the parenting coordinator has the ability to bring his or her own motion before the judge to hear what the parenting coordinator has to say about a particular issue. Parenting coordinators do not do this lightly. The judges realize this, and will give very quick and fast attention to getting that parenting coordinator before the court to say what they believe is an important matter for the judge to hear.
What is the role of a parenting coordinator in a divorce?
Generally, parenting coordinators are not involved during the divorce process. They can be, but it’s highly unusual. The parenting coordinator generally gets involved after the divorce, and the reason why is because a parenting coordinator does not have the ability to choose a parenting schedule for parents. The biggest issue during a divorce is finding the parenting plan that is in the best interest of the children. And the parenting plan, of course, is an umbrella if you will. Underneath that umbrella comes decision making and a schedule. And of course, there is an entire plethora of decision making. Decision making regarding medical issues, educational issues, social issues. And under a parenting schedule, there is, of course, the regular schedule, a holiday schedule, and the summer break schedule. So people are busy working on that plan. And if they cannot come to an agreement on one, then generally the judge will create one for them. And it is their difficulties in implementing this parenting plan that leads them to need a parenting coordinator.
Are parenting coordinators ever used in intact marriages or when a stepparent joins the family?
Not that I have ever seen. Generally, when that happens, people go to family therapy.
How is a parenting coordinator different from a mediator?
All parenting coordinators by Florida statute are mediators. So in that sense, there is some overlap. But a mediator is a professional who is neutral. And that is also true of the parenting coordinator. A parenting coordinator has to be neutral, and, of course, is the professional. But the mediator’s role is to help clients resolve their issues in the particular matter that is being brought before the mediator. Example: a mediator for divorce is there with the parties and their attorneys, and is being told what issues are in dispute at that time that they have to come before the mediator. And that’s generally perhaps a parenting plan, alimony, the distribution of assets and liabilities, whether one person’s attorney’s fees should be paid, how much child support should be paid. These are the issues that the mediator deals with – some or all of these. The mediator’s job is to come up with creative solutions to help resolve the issues between the parties. The mediator is not empowered to make decisions. That’s the judge’s job. A parenting coordinator can make decisions if the people give the parenting coordinator that power. For example, they can say, well, ‘we are just so at odds over whether the father or the mother should have Thanksgiving this year, and we don’t want to go back to court. We don’t want to have to go back to mediation. I suppose we could flip a coin, but it would be better if after you have heard from both of us, if you could just make the decision if you can’t bring us to agreement on it.’ They could give the parenting coordinator that power. The mediator can never accept a power like that.
Does someone need a lawyer when it comes to custody and visitation issues if they already have a parenting coordinator?
Sometimes yes. Because again, the job of the parenting coordinator is to help the people co-parent. There are times when the process does not always work. An example of that would be if they have a disagreement over whether a child should attend a religious school after the child has completed preschool. The parenting coordinator can try to work with them. But ultimately, again, the parenting coordinator does not have the power to make a decision like that. And if they cannot reach an agreement through their parenting coordinator, that would be an issue that they would have to bring before the court. And in a situation like that, it would mean needing an attorney, because if you go to court, you absolutely should have an attorney. This is not necessarily custody and visitation issues, but they are also the kinds of decisions that can come up. We don’t use the words “custody” and “visitation” in Florida: we have parenting time and parenting responsibilities. So those would be judge-made decisions.
Who pays for the parenting coordinator?
Generally, the parties pay equally for the parenting coordinator, and that kind of an arrangement would be built into the contract that the parenting coordinator has with the people. However, there are times when there is such a disparity in the income that the judge will make that decision at the time when the parenting coordinator is ordered by the judge, and say since the mother makes 25% of the combined income of the mother and father, we will only have the mother pay 25% of the parenting coordinator, and the father will pay 75%. That would be an example of why there would be a distinction between the equal splitting of the fees.
Diana Shepherd: My guest for this podcast has been Vera Bergermann, a seasoned family lawyer practicing in Southwest Florida. To learn more about how Vera and her experienced team can assist you to create and maintain a healthy co-parenting relationship during and after divorce, request a free initial telephone consultation at www.bergermannlaw.com.