Is Mid-Week Overnight Parenting Time In The Best Interest Of The Child?
Well, it depends. The child custody lawyers at our New Jersey based law firm understand that both parents have a fundamental right to have visitation (a/k/a parenting time) with their child. Having said that, the focus of our attorneys and the judges of New Jersey Family Courts is always on the best interest of the child.
With respect to mid-week overnight parenting time, many factors are taken into consideration. These include, but not limited to the child’s education ranging from homework to how far a parent may live from the child’s school. Furthermore, the parent seeking mid-week overnight parenting time must demonstrate that they shall be sure that the child’s study habits shall not be interrupted by the mid-week visitation. The following case is an excellent example of how New Jersey courts closely analyze such matters.
In M.C. v. P.C., the Honorable Judge Jones, of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Ocean County, reviewed a very common issue between separated and divorced parents: If a non-custodial parent should exercise overnight parenting in the middle of the week during the school year, or if such an arrangement is against the child’s best interest in relation to education, and a need for consistency and stability. Judge Jones held that a parenting time schedule has to reasonably consider the best interest of the child, which includes the child’s educational interest, and also consider each parent’s duty to oversee the child’s academic schedule and obligations. With that said, a request for overnight mid-week parenting time by a non-custodial parent is not contrary to a child’s best interests per se, especially when the non-custodial parent lives relatively close to the other parent, and the child’s school. Overnight midweek arrangements carry ongoing duties for the non-custodial parent to take care of the child’s educational responsibilities to be prepared for the next day’s school session during the parenting time. This includes making sure homework assignments are completed, the child is prepared for any quizzes and tests, spends a reasonable amount of time studying, and goes to sleep at a reasonable time as well. When evidence reflects that a overnight mid-week parenting time schedule is having a negative impact on a child’s school performance, the Family Part has the discretion to modify the parenting time schedule in the child’s best interest. Finally, in M.C. v. P.C., Judge Jones found that even though there had been incidents in the past where the children failed to complete their homework, after returning from midweek overnight parenting time, there was not enough evidence at this time to conclude that the midweek overnight parenting time during the school year had to be terminated or modified. However, the importance of being prepared for school was enough to warrant the implementation of appropriate ongoing parameters to ensure the children’s educational progress.
M.C. and P.C. got married in 2007, and had two children together. They divorced in 2014. According to their matrimonial settlement agreement, the parents agreed to share joint legal custody, and that M.C., the mother, would be the primary residential custodian, and that P.C., the father, would have reasonable and liberal parenting time. P.C. had parenting time on the weekends, and Thursdays after school into overnight, and Friday morning. M.C. argued that the overnight midweek parenting time was having a detrimental effect on the children’s best interest, and should be modified. She contended that on many occasions the children had gone to school without completing their homework, and that the situation was educationally and fundamentally inappropriate, and wanted the court to terminate the midweek overnights so that she could supervise the children’s studies and homework, and have P.C. receive extra parenting time during the summer vacations.
P.C. on the other hand denied that the children were going to school unprepared, and maintained that he did in fact make sure they completed their homework. He also contended that he was capable of exercising responsibility over the children’s educational responsibilities. Even so, Judge Jones noted that P.C. did not convincingly refute his ex-wife’s contentions and testimony that she had to help the kids complete their homework on Friday mornings, before class began, on at least a few days after they returned from overnight care. Ultimately, the parents’ respective positions depended mostly on their own oral testimony. Neither parent provided any substantial evidence to support their positions in regards to the kid’s school preparedness or performance on Fridays after spending the night at their father’s house. Judge Jones noted that they could have provided school records, or testimony from teachers, either as expert witnesses or fact witnesses.
Under New Jersey Rule of Evidence 201(b), education is one of the most important factors in a child’s life. Education is so important that the New Jersey Legislature have created a statutory mandate in N.J.S.A 9:2-4, that requires Family Part courts to consider “the quality and continuity of the child’s education,” in every child custody determination. For intact families, parents have a general duty to supervise their children’s educational process, and need to teach their children that studying for tests, completing homework, and generally being prepared for school have to be high priorities in their schedule.
In divorced or separated families, education sometimes becomes challenging for a child. Far too often parents end up fighting each other on simple issues, instead of working together in the interest of their children. However, children need functional parents rather than dysfunctional ones, who can be role models for their children. Even when parents are cooperative with each other, it is still difficult for children living in two different homes with two different schedules and rules to be prepared for school and finish all their homework assignments on time.
In theory it should not be so hard for two responsible, divorced parents to give their children joint educational management through positive communication with each other via phone, text or even email, and for both parents to take the time to make sure all educational responsibilities are completed, and communicate to the other parent of any problems relating to education, if they happen to arise. New Jersey Statute 9:2-4 explicitly considers, the willingness and ability to each parent to cooperate and communicate with the other parent, as part of the custody analysis.
Divorced parents do not have to like each other for a midweek overnight schedule to work, but they definitely have to respect each other’s parental role, and the need for functional coexistence and cooperation. In regards to a non-custodial parent’s responsibility in a midweek overnight arrangement, it requires more than just telling the child to go and do their homework. Parental responsibility may require actually assisting the child with homework, depending on the age and intellectual level of the child, and ensuring that the completed work is satisfactory. Moreover, parents have a duty to establish ground rules like curfews and bedtimes as necessary.
Overnight midweek parenting time is not harmful to a child’s best interests per se. In some cases, this type of arrangement could actually foster a healthy child-parent relationship, especially when helping a child with homework in an appropriate way. With that said, every case has its own facts, and what works for one family may not work for another family. In most cases the breakdown of this arrangement results from one parent neglecting their educational responsibilities, and not prioritizing the completion of homework. Parenting is more than just having “fun” with your child. It also involves meeting certain parental duties, and it is not fair to just pass these duties on to the other parent. If a parent desires midweek overnight parenting time, he or she is responsible for ensuring that the children complete their educational responsibilities and any other obligations. If a parent cannot or will not accept this responsibility then midweek overnight parenting time may not be in the child’s best interest.
In M.C. v. P.C., Judge Jones found that there was not enough evidence to find that the homework issue was so out of control as to require a termination of midweek overnight visits. However, the court did find that the mother’s concerns had merit, and that before the situation spins out of control, there was a need to create protocols to ensure that both parents take responsibility to make sure the children complete their homework, and communicate with each other in way that reduces the chances that the children go to school unprepared. These protocols included: (1) both parents jointly request the children’s teachers to advise them both in writing if their is any concern about the children being prepared for class; (2) P.C. would have an affirmative duty to make sure all of the children’s homework is completed during the midweek overnight visits; (3) if M.C. finds that the homework is not being complete or that the children are not prepared for class in any way, she must document all missing assignments and forward this information to P.C. within five days to ensure that a record of any problems is maintained; and (4) if incomplete homework, or a lack of test preparation remains an ongoing issue, then the parents may jointly schedule a meeting with the children’s teachers to address the issue. Furthermore, the parents can file applications with the court to address significant disputes relating to the children’s educational development.
Our law firm stands prepared to help you and your child in any child custody dispute.