Using a Parent Coordinator

Posted by: Teresa Reade

Do I need a parent coordinator?

When representing clients in family related matters, often the most difficult issue is child custody. In many situations, the issues that caused the marriage to break down in the first place related to disagreements around parenting, and these differences become even more amplified when trying to co-parent after separation. One possible solution helping address these issues is by using a parent coordinator in the appropriate situation.

What is a parent coordinator?

A parent coordinator is an independent, neutral third party who helps parents to resolve child-related disagreements outside of court. Parenting coordinators can be attorneys familiar with the custody laws, or they can be mental health counselors, or even a combination of both. The purpose of a parent coordinator is to assist the parties in making day-to-day decisions and resolving disputes that are not defined by an Order of the court. Even with the most well drafted order, there will continue to be conflicts between the parties. Some of the most common everyday disputes include the selection and payment for extracurricular activities, education, and medical treatment. Although the courts are empowered to resolve these types of disputes, it is not efficient or cost effective to use the court system to do so. For most parents, these issues arise only occasionally and a parent coordinator would not be cost-effective. But for others, disputes arise on a weekly or even daily basis, and a parent coordinator would be beneficial.

What power does a parent coordinator have in resolving custody issues?

A parent coordinator must first be formally appointed by the court with an order. The powers delegated to the parent coordinator are defined by the parties and counsel. The order will define and allocate which powers are given to the parent coordinator and which are reserved by the court. Generally the court maintains ultimate jurisdiction, meaning that it retains the power to make orders when a dispute cannot be decided by a parent coordinator, or if one party wants to appeal the coordinator's recommendation to the court for a final decision. Also, the court always maintains the power to enforce its own orders. The parent coordinator's role is to help the parties resolve conflicts regarding court orders but cannot change court orders "on the fly" or make recommendations to the court regarding new or different orders.

What power does the court have in appointing a parent coordinator?

A judge does not have the inherent authority to compel a party to submit to the binding decision-making authority of a parent coordinator, but can only approve a mutual agreement by the parties to do so, and then enforce the terms of the appointment. This issue was specifically addressed by the Supreme Judicial Court in Bower v. Bournay-Bower, 429 Mass. 690 (2014). In this matter, the court ordered the parties to submit their disputes to a parent coordinator prior to filing any action with the court to modify or enforce the orders in place. The Supreme Judicial Court stated that probate court judges "possess the inherent authority to refer parties to a parent coordinator in the appropriate circumstances in order to preserve limited judicial resources and aid in the probate court's functioning and capacity to decide cases." Id. at 699. However, this power was limited in that it could not impede a person's constitutional right to obtain justice by filing an action in court and to obtain a judicial review of the parent coordinator's decision.

As a result of this case, the courts have begun the process of drafting a standing order to address the appointment and authority of a parent coordinator, and the court's role when a parent coordinator is used by the parties.

Conclusion

For many high-conflict parents who find the day-to-day task of co-parenting to be filled with conflict, a parent coordinator may be a useful and cost effect tool to reach agreements and reduce stress. It is often easier, faster, and more cost effective alternative than seeking redress through counsel and the court. As a result, the effect upon the children during an already stressful transition time is reduced.