Despite lawyers’ and judges’ best efforts to draft precise legal decision-making and parenting time orders, issues may arise between  parents which are not addressed in the court orders.  For example, parents may disagree about how and where the children will exchange  from one parent to the other.  Parents may disagree regarding dividing school breaks or minor holidays not addressed in their parenting plan.  Believe it or not, the parents in one of my cases could not even agree on how to cut their child’s hair!

When parents cannot resolve disagreements on their own, their usual remedy is to file a post-decree petition with the court to modify or enforce the existing court orders.  The traditional litigation process, however, is inefficient, time-consuming and expensive.  Hiring lawyers to take minor issues to the judge for resolution often just simply doesn’t make sense.

An alternative to taking minor disputes back to the judge is to have a third party appointed to arbitrate and resolve such issues.  Rule 74 of the Arizona Rules of Family Law Procedure authorizes the appointment of a “parenting coordinator” as a quasi-judicial third party to resolve certain limited disputes between parents.  Parenting coordinators are typically psychologists, therapists or experienced family law attorneys.  The scope of a parenting coordinator’s authority is limited under the Rule.   Parenting coordinators may not change legal decision-making authority or substantially change parenting time.  They may, however, make decisions “regarding parenting time challenges not specified in the parenting plan that the parents are unable to resolve.  By way of example, these challenges can include disagreements about:  pick-up and drop-off locations, dates and times; holiday scheduling; discipline; health issues; personal care issues; school and extracurricular activities; choice of schools; and managing problematic behaviors . . . .” see Rule 74 H.1.c., ARFLP.

Before January 1, 2016, judges could appoint parenting coordinators any time they felt a parenting coordinator would be helpful.  In addition, before January 1, 2016, a parenting coordinator could only make recommendations, which either party could challenge before the judge.  As of January 1, 2016, however, a parenting coordinator may only be appointed when both parties agree.  Additionally, as long as the parenting coordinator acts within the scope of the parenting coordinator’s authority, the parenting coordinator’s decisions are binding.

Since the parenting coordinator rules changed on January 1, 2016, many of my colleagues have been reluctant to agree to the appointment of a parenting coordinator.  Specifically, they are uncomfortable with the idea that the parenting coordinator’s decisions will be final and binding–that there will be no judicial review or right to appeal.

While clients certainly must be advised that a parenting coordinator’s decisions within the scope of her authority are binding,  I believe many lawyers are unduly concerned about this.  After all, the parenting coordinator will not–and may not under the Rule–make any decision which changes legal decision-making or substantially alters parenting time.  And isn’t the whole point to obtain a quick and inexpensive resolution of minor disputes without involving lawyers and judges?

What’s more, there are several retired judges who now serve as parenting coordinators.  I have used one of these retired judges as a parenting coordinator on a couple of my cases recently, and I am completely confident delegating to her the issues that fall within the scope of a parenting coordinator’s authority.  She has over twenty years of judicial experience, many of those years being on the family court bench, and she certainly can resolve issues as capably as the judges currently on the bench.

Procedurally, presenting an issue to a parenting coordinator is quite simple.  Once the parenting coordinator is appointed, when a dispute arises, the aggrieved parent contacts the parenting coordinator via e-mail or via a telephone or in-office meeting.  After hearing the aggrieved parent’s position, the parenting coordinator receives the other parent’s position and version of events.  After each parent has been fully heard, the parenting coordinator issues a written decision, which is promptly adopted by the judge as an official court order.  While the parties do share the cost of the parenting coordinator’s fees, the parties do not need to hire lawyers or to engage in long, drawn out court battles.

In short, parenting coordinators are a valuable resource.  Compared to hiring lawyers, filing  motions and engaging in courtroom litigation before a judge, the parenting coordinator process is highly efficient and yields substantial savings in terms of time and money.   As long as parents are advised as to its binding nature, the parenting coordinator process should be considered as a viable means to address and resolve minor parenting disputes.

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© 2017 J. Kyle Scoresby, P.C. All rights reserved.