One of the most frustrating family law situations is when one parent has a court order for specific visitation (also called timesharing or parenting plan) but the other parent refuses to follow the court’s orders. Sometimes the refusal of a parent to follow the order is blatant but more often it is subtle. The blatant example is the out-and-out refusal to comply. The more subtle example is where a parent looks to capitalize on vagueness in the order and usurp more time for him or herself; or, when a parent is routinely late to facilitate the custodial exchange. Even worse, a parent may schedule an activity and get the children excited about it, knowing the activity conflicts with the other parent’s custodial time. The latter example places the other parent in the toughest position because, although he or she did not approve of the activity, it is difficult to be the parent who disappoints the children by not allowing them to participate. So, what is the parent who is the target of such situations to do?
- Conduct custodial exchanges at school. The very best option is to ensure that custodial exchanges occur at school, daycare or camp. This will remove the likelihood of a parent being late or acting in other ways to frustrate the visitation.
- Secure detailed custodial orders. Spending the time and money to craft detailed custodial orders is an important way to minimize, if not eliminate, the opportunity for one or both parents to take advantage of confusion or loopholes in the arrangement. Working with a therapist or other professionals who focus their work on custodial issues can be advantageous.
- Call police. If a court order exists, call the police if the other parent does not exchange the children as required. The downside to this is that it may be disturbing for the children to see the police come and facilitate the exchange, but it is an option that can result in immediate compliance with the court’s order.
- Pursue a contempt action. The parent who knows of the visitation order and willfully violates it is in contempt of the court’s order. Contempt in family law is a quasi-criminal action and the penalty includes the possibility of jail time. Sometimes the threat of jail will get the violating parent’s attention. If not, placing a parent in jail, especially one who is the primary custodial parent, is not something the judge really wants to do. Moreover, it places the other parent in the position of explaining to the children that the other parent is in jail and why. Contempt is an expensive process which does not usually yield favorable results.
- Seek high conflict counseling or a Parenting Plan Coordinator for the parents. Working with a professional to help the parents resolve their disputes may be an investment in the future. Counseling can be agreed to by the parents or ordered by the court. Counseling will help the parents develop tools to resolve their conflicts and to work with the therapist in reaching agreements. A Parenting Plan Coordinator (PPC) can only be appointed if the parents agree because a PPC becomes a decision maker, much like a judge. These options can be expensive but are less costly than multiple court hearings and will hopefully help the parents to improve their communication with each other.
- Request modification of custody. If the custodial parent is proven to cause problems with facilitating visitation, it may be in the children’s best interest for custody to be switched to the other (and currently non-custodial) parent. This is a long and expensive process, but in the end, it may be the best for the children. Parents who continuously violate custody orders need to be made aware that, in the long run, they risk losing primary custody of the children.
Seeking legal advice sooner rather than later is critical. Simply accepting an intolerable situation will only create a status quo which over time is difficult to change. Early intervention is the best solution to a visitation compliance problem.