Beginning October 1, 2019, extensive changes to the North Carolina Parenting Coordinator statute will go into effect. Below is a complete guide to Parenting Coordinators in North Carolina, including the changes taking effect on October 1st.
1. What is a Parenting Coordinator?
A parenting coordinator (or “PC”) is a neutral third-party who helps parents involved in high-conflict custody cases make day-to-day decisions. PCs help reduce court case back-log and parental frustration. Parents involved in high-conflict custody cases spend a lot of time and money in court fighting. Most of the time, the fights are about the day-to-day decisions and courts are unable to address these issues in a timely manner.
While it may take months to reach a judge, PCs offer a means to resolve these day-to-day conflicts quickly and easily. A PC appointment often reduces court costs and involvement for parties because of how much they can help the parties address.
2. Who Can Be a Parenting Coordinator?
A PC can be either a mental health professional or an attorney in good standing with the NC State Bar. The court maintains a list of approved PCs to assign to each case. The PC must complete several stringent requirements to get on the list. These requirements are in place to help protect children involved in high-conflict custody cases. To get on the list, a person must:
- Have a masters or doctorate degree in psychology, law, social work, or counseling;
- Have at least five years of related professional experience after completing the PC’s degree;
- Complete 24 hours of training in topics related to child development, high-conflict family dynamics, effects of divorce, conflict-management, mediation and legal issues; and
- Be currently licensed in the State of North Carolina in the PC’s area of practice.
3. When is a Parenting Coordinator Appointed?
Once a child custody order (other than an emergency custody order) is entered, the court may enter an order appointing a PC at any time. The court may appoint the PC by granting a party’s motion or by the court’s own motion.
4. What are the Requirements for Appointment?
An order appointing a PC must be entered after a custody order (other than an emergency custody order) is entered. Unlike a motion to modify custody, the judge does not need to find a substantial change in circumstances in order to make the appointment. But the parties must contact the PC to confirm the PC is willing to serve. Lastly, the judge must make specific findings in the order of appointment that this is a high-conflict custody case, the parties are able to pay for the PC, and the appointment of the PC is in the best interest of the minor child.
5. How Long is a Parenting Coordinator Appointed?
Terms are usually set at 2 years but can be set for 1 year. If the parties want to continue to use the PC, there must be an order re-appointing the PC. You should file a motion to modify the PC appointment if you want to use a different PC.
6. Communication with a Parenting Coordinator:
You may meet and communicate with the PC without your attorney or the other party present. However, the PC will not consider your communications confidential. This means that the PC can tell the other party, attorneys or Judge, what you said. PCs are usually great at discretion but it is good to keep in mind what you tell the PC is never in confidence.
While the PC may speak freely with you or the other side, the PC cannot speak to the Judge without both sides’ attorneys present. However, the PC may meet or speak with the minor children.
NC statute authorizes the PC to speak with any person who has information that will assist the PC in carrying out the PC’s duties. If the PC needs authorization from the parents before speaking with a professional, you and the other side must sign authorization forms. If you refuse, legal action could be taken against you. For example, if the minor children are seeing a therapist once a week, the PC will need to keep in contact with the therapist. But the therapist will require a signed authorization form before speaking with the PC. You’ll need to sign an authorization form as soon as possible to allow the PC to speak with the therapist.
7. The Cost of a Parenting Coordinator:
The court must make specific findings that the parties can afford the PC. Most of the time, the court will order that the parties are equally responsible for the cost of the PC. Under certain circumstances, the court may find that one party should be responsible for a greater percentage of the costs than the other party. If that’s the case, the order will reflect the unequal percentages.
Once appointed, the PC will send both clients a contract to sign. Usually, the contract includes an initial retainer amount for which both parties are responsible for paying (unless agreed otherwise in the PC Order). Once you both pay the initial retainer, services will begin, and the PC will bill both clients at the PC’s hourly rate. In Wake County, hourly rates for PCs range between $200-$350 with an average of about $250 per hour.
The PC will bill half the cost of any time spent on the case to you and the other party. So remember, the PC will bill half the cost of any time spent speaking with you to the other side but will bill half the cost of any time the other side spends talking to the PC to you. To save money, it’s important for both parties to be as short and concise as possible when speaking with the PC. But if the other side is abusing this system, there are remedies available so that you are not stuck paying an overly expensive bill.
8. Authority of the Parenting Coordinator:
The order appointing the PC will specify the PC’s exact authority. During the appointment, the PC should not take any action that is not specified in the order. Generally, a PC should have the power to resolve disputes that aren’t specifically addressed in the custody order, clarify the meaning of ambiguous or conflicting terms in the custody order, and help the parties comply with the custody order. Specifically, the PC’s authority includes, but is not limited to, the following areas:
- Pick-up and drop off time;
- Method of pick-up and delivery;
- Transportation to and from visitation;
- Vacation time and holiday schedules;
- Who can participate in visitation (i.e. significant others and relatives);
- Phone contact with either parent;
- Participation in childcare, daycare, and babysitting;
- The child’s education, health care, passport, bedtime, diet, clothing, and appearance (including, but not limited to, tattoos and piercings);
- Recreational, extracurricular activities, and before and after school activities;
- Discipline of the child; and
- Any other area of specific authority granted in the order appointing the PC.
As you can see above, the PC can have a great deal of authority over your custody case. However, there are some things the PC cannot do. The PC cannot change the terms of the custody order. The PC also cannot provide any counseling services to the parties or minor children.
9. Decisions of a Parenting Coordinator:
As long as it is within the scope of the PC’s authority, any decision the PC makes will be enforceable as if it were an order of the court. That means you can file a motion to show cause if the other party is not following the PC’s decision.
North Carolina law requires any decision made by the PC be in writing. If the PC’s appointment expires or a new PC is appointed but the custody order is still in effect, the old PC decision still stands and will continue to be in effect. Meaning, you and the other party must continue to follow the decision or risk receiving a motion to show cause. This remains true unless the PC modifies the decision in writing, the next PC modifies the decision in writing or the court reviews and modifies the decision.
10. Motions to Review the Decisions of a Parenting Coordinator
If you or another party do not approve of the PC’s decision, you may file a motion for the court to review the PC’s decision. You’ll have to follow the PC’s decision until the review hearing though. If the court finds that the PC’s decision is not in the best interest of the minor child or that the PC exceeded the scope of the PC’s authority, you will no longer have to follow the PC’s decision.
You’ll need to subpoena the PC to attend the review hearing and can bill the parties for time spent at the hearing. At the end of the review hearing, the judge can decide how to divide the PC’s costs related to the review hearing between the parties.
11. Noncompliance of the Parties
If you believe the other party is in violation of the custody order or is not following the PC’s decisions, you may file a motion to show cause against the other party. Similarly, the PC may take legal action if the PC believes one of the parties is in violation of the current custody order, one of the PC’s decisions, or has not paid the PC’s fees in accordance with the PC contract. In those circumstances, the PC may file a report with the court (discussed in more detail below) and the court may decide to issue an order to show cause (on its own motion) against the party. If found to be in contempt, the party will face a number of penalties including fines or the possibility of jail time.
12. Reports Filed by a Parenting Coordinator:
The PC has the power to file reports with the court in the below circumstances:
- The PC no longer believes the current custody order is in the best interests of the minor child;
- The PC does not believe the PC is authorized to resolve a specific issue;
- One or more of the parties is not following the current custody order or the PC’s decisions;
- One or more of the parties has not paid the PC’s fees; and
- The PC requests that the PC’s appointment be modified or terminated.
A review hearing will take place within four weeks of the filing date unless the PC requests more time or the court has already issued an order to show cause based on the PC’s report. After the hearing, the court may issue a temporary custody order to address the best interests of the minor child.
13. Modification or Termination of a Parenting Coordinator’s Appointment:
If you’d like to modify or terminate the PC’s appointment early, you may file a motion. The PC may also file a motion to modify or terminate the appointment if the PC believes it is necessary. A motion to modify or terminate will be granted if good cause is shown. Good cause can include (but is not limited to) any of the following:
- Lack of reasonable progress;
- A determination the parties no longer need a PC;
- One of the parties experiences an impairment that significantly interferes with they party’s ability to participate in the process;
- The PC is unable or unwilling to continue to serve.
As you can see, a Parenting Coordinator can be extremely helpful in high-conflict custody cases. If you find yourself in court battle after court battle, you may be in a high-conflict custody case scenario. A Parenting Coordinator may be the best thing for you and your children to reduce all of the chaos.
Our firm has extensive experience representing clients in high-conflict custody cases. We also have several attorneys who serve as parenting coordinators. Contact out office today for more information and find out if a Parenting Coordinator is right for you.