While most divorcing couples have good intentions when it comes to co-parenting, the realities are not always easy to negotiate. Attempting to juggle visits, overnight stays, vacations, holidays, etc., between two separate households can easily result in disputes which may need to be settled via court intervention. In its efforts to help parents resolve disagreements and find ways to abide by the terms of their custody order, the New Jersey family courts may appoint a parent coordinator (PC) to serve as a liason between the two parties. According to the Parenting Coordinator Pilot Program guidelines, a PC is a “qualified neutral person appointed by the court, or agreed to by the parties, to facilitate the resolution of day to day parenting issues that frequently arise within the context of family life when parties are separated.”
It sounds like a great idea in theory, but in practice, many parents end up resenting the parent coordinator, or even the idea of being forced to work with one. However, it's important to note that the vast majority of PCs are psychologists or social workers with extensive experience in working with children and/or families. There's a lot to be learned from them, so it's best to keep an open mind. You also have the assurance that you are not obligated to follow the PC's suggestions, unless the court mandates you to do so.
Speaking of the courts, it should be understood that only a judge has the right to modify a court order, unless both parties agree to enter into a consent order. This is where the problems typically begin for parents and PCs. As mentioned before, a PC must be a neutral party, meaning that their suggestions cannot show any bias for one parent over the other. In addition, their recommendations must not compromise the terms of the current custody order. They cannot suggest or negotiate alternate visitation schedules or custody arrangements, nor can they address enforcement issues when one or both parents break the rules.
This provision has been addressed numerous times by the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court. In a 2016 ruling, the appellate court clearly stated, “The court has no authority to delegate its decision making to a parenting coordinator.” The ruling further went on to stress that a trial court cannot require either party to abide by the PC's recommendations. This fundamentally important statement allows either party to seek resolution directly from the courts, regardless of the practicality of the PC's suggestions. A parent can also petition for the termination of a parent coordinator, although the petitioner would have to show that the PC has been ineffective in resolving the issues between the two parties. Proving this to the court's satisfaction can be tricky, which is why it's important to work with an experienced family law attorney. For more information on NJ's parenting coordinator program, as well as your rights and legal options, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.