September generally marks the emotional end of summer, and for families with children, the inevitable return to the school year schedule. This can be a time of anticipation, excitement, anxiety or even dread. For separated or divorced families, it can also be a time of conflict. Back to school legal issues can exacerbate already difficult parenting situations, especially where disagreement over school related decisions exists. Among these can be selection of the right school, crafting an appropriate Individual Education Plan (“IEP”), and payment for private school or college. As with many parenting disputes, outside professional help often can facilitate successful resolution of these issues.
The changes incident to a family separation can call into question the school selection for children. This can be because of relocation to a new city, change of school districts, financial hardship related to separation, or even just the graduation of children to a new grade level. Regardless of the reason, parents sometimes fight over what is the right school for their children. Whether they address this difference of opinion in mediation, negotiation, collaborative process, or litigation, a professional education consultant can be helpful in identifying the different criteria and priorities for selecting the right school, and in analyzing how well prospective schools meet these criteria.
Another problem parents sometimes face, although typically long before the start of school, is disagreement over the proper IEP for children with learning challenges. These disputes can be between the parents, or between both parents and the school system. Sometimes a professional evaluation by a trained therapist is key to identifying the precise contours of the child’s learning needs. Sometimes a lawyer with experience navigating the administrative process is needed to obtain the level of intervention the child needs. Either way, early involvement of the right professional is important to a successful result.
Finally, the question of how to pay for education can be a sticking point between parents. While Maryland courts can resolve this issue in some circumstances where the issue is public school vs. private school, they have no authority to referee payment for college education in most cases. The exceptions generally are limited to those cases where interpretation of an agreement between the parents is needed, or extremely rare instances where the college bound child still is legally entitled to child support. Obviously, any time these discrete legal issues arise, the assistance of an attorney with appropriate experience is essential. This is true whether litigation, negotiation, or contract interpretation is needed to solve the dispute. Family law attorneys also often have the ability to refer clients with “back to school” issues to other appropriate professionals.
In conclusion, parents facing the difficult “back to school” decisions that can arise in the context of separation or divorce do well to consult their family law attorney on these issues – early and often!