The most common disputes that wind up on my desk involve squabbles over custody and visitation rights: in other words; who has the children and when. Although the courts normally award joint legal custody, the parent without physical custody generally has a visitation schedule that is clearly defined. Mom and dad’s lives (and the children) cannot always fit within court-prescribed parameters, however. The standard court order for many joint legal custody arrangements typically calls for the non-custodial parent to have custody of the child every other weekend, one night mid-week, alternate holiday periods, and two to six weeks out of the summer. For most people such a regulated schedule cannot always be adhered to. After all, “life happens” which means special events and emergencies may call for the need to change visitation times. Sounds reasonable, you’re probably thinking, but what if your ex is one to live by the book–won’t budge when you wish to make a visitation time change? Though it’s not always easy, there are ways to handle an inflexible spouse. I advise my clients of the following: do your best to adhere to the schedule because you certainly don’t want to disrupt the children’s sense of continuity. It’s hard enough for most kids to go back and forth between their parents. To keep changing times can make it even more difficult. Children need a routine; they need order. They often feel caught in the middle, too, so if one or the other parent continually insists on changing the schedule, it can adversely affect the children. Do your best, then, to make your plans according to what the court has ordered. Plan family events, special occasions, outings and other events on your weekends and times. If you continually ask for flexibility, your ex may become even more inflexible! That’s the last thing you want! Let’s assume you’re pretty constant and stay with the standard schedule–but at times ask to change visitation and your ex won’t “give”. Then what? It’s time to get your best negotiation and diplomacy skills in order. Just because the marriage is over, raising the children isn’t, so here are some choices:
If your ex is inflexible, try writing kind and thoughtfully-worded letters that reflect your requests. A dialogue on the subject may spark an altercation. Respectful correspondence is a great start–assertive is fine; aggressive is not.
If you do contact your spouse regarding any schedule changes by phone, or discuss the request in person, be polite and courteous at all times, especially if he or she isn’t. This approach could play a major factor in getting you what you want.
If letters and calm conversations don’t do the job, try a bartering system. Some type of “trade-you-this-for-that” is very effective. Issue your ex a “credit” (put it in writing), for the time slot he or she is changing for you in exchange for a time he or she may want from you in the future. Let your ex “bank” these credits and cash them in. Most importantly, practice what you preach. Be flexible when asked to redeem these credits. This approach helps the parent who makes the sacrifice feel as though he or she is getting something in return–and getting it right away. With credits in the “bank”, your extends to feel a sense of power. If you’re using a barter system, be certain you honor your “credit.” Also, don’t ask to trade too often. Abusing the process will only create tension.
Your last resort is to contact your attorney. Only do so if it seems there is an extended period of time in which your ex won’t make any reasonable schedule changes. Using an attorney can become stressful and costly and land you in court. Best to exhaust the other options instead if you can.
Q: I’m a 37-year-old father of two and I have had the need to change my visitation schedule every couple of months because of out-of-town work commitments. My former wife, however, has been very obstinate about not cooperating. What should I do?A: Asking for changes too frequently may prove to be a constant irritant to your ex. If you can’t barter, then you may need to go to court and ask for a modification–a different calendar arrangement that better fits your work schedule. Of course, in California you can set an appointment in conciliation court and get a mediation appointment for free! Very often, the courts will attempt to help the parent who wants more flexibility because their job requires it.Q: I’m a mother of two young children and my husband seems to prefer his spur-of-the-moment vacations over his visitation with the children. He’s fairly demanding that I arrange my calendar around his. What’s the best way to handle this?A: Try to reason with him by letting him know that one day the children may feel they are not a priority in his life. Also, don’t be afraid to let him know your life doesn’t revolve around his. Be as flexible as your comfort allows but don’t subjugate your needs or those of the children.
A frequent contributor to Divorce Magazine and a member of Divorce Magazine’s Advisory Board, Ms. Phillips is a seasoned family law attorney whose practice has run the gamut from high profile clients to representing the interests of women and men in the political arena both on a local and federal level. View her Divorce Magazine Profile online.