In New Jersey, Which Parent May Decide Where To Enroll The Children In Pre-School?

Divorce laws in New Jersey makes our state one of the most “pro-education” in the country. New Jersey family law reflects this, even at this early stage of a child’s education.  Why?  Let’s explore

New Jersey is known for parents who have begun educating their children at an even younger age by sending them to pre-school before they enter kindergarten.  Pre-education is usually for one to two years and serves as an important building block in a child’s success. Not only is pre-school a great way to get a head start on education, but also it is beneficial for children to learn vital social skills so they can make friends easier. For a married couple, selecting which pre-school to send their child to is simple. The couple can discuss the possible options and together make a decision. However, what if the child’s parents are divorced? Which parent gets to select the pre-school to enroll the child in?  As a New Jersey divorce and family attorney, I am aware of the recent case of Madison v. Davis that addressed this issue in depth.

In Madison, the plaintiff and defendant divorced in 2013. The parties agreed to have joint legal custody of their three-year-old child, although the plaintiff would serve as the primarily residential custodian. At the time of the divorce, the child was attending Pre-School A. The parents agreed to share the cost of pre-school equally and to cooperate in advising the school to send each of them copies of bills and progress reports. Furthermore, the agreement did not limit the mother to enroll her child in a particular pre-school. Moreover, once the child was of school age, the defendant was entitled to obtain all information from the school regarding the child’s progress.

Four months after finalizing the divorce, the plaintiff mother enrolled the child in Pre-School B. The plaintiff stated that the switch would be beneficial to the child because the new pre-school offered seasonal swimming classes. The defendant objected. He alleged that the only reason the plaintiff switched pre-schools was because of a personal issue she had with the director of Pre-School A, “who had allowed the defendant to sign the child out of the pre-school on one occasion without the plaintiff’s prior knowledge and consent.” The defendant further stated that switching pre-schools for the child was a big education decision that should have been made together. Of course, the plaintiff disagreed, stating that since she was the custodial parent, she had the authority to make such a decision.

The court recognized that deciding which pre-school to enroll the child in was one that both parents wanted to take part in; however, ultimately the plaintiff had exercised reasonable parental discretion in choosing to change the pre-school from A to B. The court established a seven- prong test to apply when this type of issue arose: 

  1. If the pre-school is being utilized in a substantial part to fill a need for a work-related day care, the custodial parent is entitled to choose the proposed pre-school for the child or to transfer the child from one school to another school.
  2. The custodial parent’s authority in this situation is not absolute and unlimited. The custodial parent, when choosing the pre-school or to transfer the child from one school to another, must act reasonably. Reasonableness includes “consideration not only of cost, but of other factors as well, such as location and accessibility, hours and dates of operation, curriculum, and ancillary services (transportation, lunches, etc.).” If transferring a child from one pre-school to another results in increased costs to the non-custodial parent, the transfer may be deemed unreasonable and contrary to the child’s best interests.
  3. The custodial parent has an obligation to give the non-custodial parent notice of any proposed change in pre-school in a reasonably and timely fashion, unless there is a restraining order or other court order keeping information regarding the child’s pre-school confidential
  4. If the non-custodial parent has legal custody over the child, he or she has a right to investigate and evaluate information about the new proposed pre-school. If the non-custodial parent believes that the new school is not in the child’s best interest and it is an unreasonable transfer, then he or she may motion the court and prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the custodial parent’s choice or change of pre-school is unreasonably and contrary to the child’s health, education general welfare and best interests.
  5. If the non-custodial parent wants to challenge the reasonableness of the custodial parent’s choice of pre-school, he or she must show that there is a more reasonable alternative plan available.
  6. If the court determines that the custodial parent’s choice of pre-school is unreasonable, it may override the selection and order different arrangements to be made. If the court determines that the custodial parent’s choice of pre-school is reasonable, it may approve the selection and order the parties to contribute the same in terms of costs of the pre-school.
  7. If a New Jersey family court finds that either party is being unreasonable in selecting a pre-school for the child, counsel fees and /or other financial sanctions may be imposed on the party by the court in its discretion

For more legal questions on selecting a reasonable pre-school for your loved one, do not hesitate to contact my office today. Thank you.