Now that summer is in full swing, it’s never too early to start thinking about where your child will be attending school in the fall.

It is important for parents to start communicating on this topic well in advance of the first day of school. Typically, there are four ways the issue of where your child attends school gets decided:

  1. If one parent has sole legal custody, that parent decides what school the child will attend;
  2. If the parents have joint legal custody, the parents can agree on what school the child will attend;
  3. If the parents have joint legal custody, and they cannot agree on what school the child will attend, they can attend mediation with a neutral third party called a mediator who will attempt to facilitate an agreement between the parties; and
  4. If the parents have joint legal custody, and they cannot agree on what school the child will attend, either parent can file a motion with the court asking the court to decide this issue.

Let’s discuss each of these options in a little more detail:

A parent with sole legal custody decides what school a child will attend. Sole legal custody gives one parent decision-making authority over important decisions for the childlike where a child goes to school, what religion a child is raised in (if any), etc. Even if one parent has sole legal custody, as a courtesy to the other parent, it is always a good idea to discuss important decisions, if discussions can be done in a safe and productive manner. And parents with sole legal custody should always inform the other parent about decisions that they have made, including what school the child will be attending, unless a parent is prohibited from doing so by a court order.

If parents share joint legal custody, both parents have decision making authority over important decisions for the child, including where the child will attend school. Our office strongly encourages parents to work together to make important decisions for their child. No one knows the situation better than the parents. Parents should keep control of these important decisions because once third parties get involved, both parents could be unhappy with the decisions that are made.

If parents share joint legal custody and cannot agree on where their child will attend school, they should consider the option of mediation, an alternative dispute resolution tool. Our office can schedule mediation for parties or the parties can arrange for their own mediation.

Parties can also use an informal mediator, a friend or relative, who can sit down with the parties to see if common ground can be found to reach an agreement.

If parties are able to reach an agreement, that agreement should be put in writing and submitted to the court as a stipulation so that a court order can be generated approving the parties’ agreement. This provides protection for everyone in the event that a disagreement arises later after an agreement has been reached.

As a last resort, if parents share joint legal custody and cannot agree on where their child will attend school, they can file a motion with the court and a hearing will be scheduled. It typically takes anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks to get your first court date in front of the attorney referee. Then, a contested hearing date may be needed so that each side can bring in witnesses and evidence to present to the court — typically this gets set anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks after the first court date. 

In all, it could take up to 12 weeks before the court is ready to make a decision. So, if school choice is an issue, you need to get your motion on file at least 12 weeks before the start of the school year if you want a decision prior to the start of school.

If you have questions about the FOC that you think would be helpful to address in future columns, please email: foc@cassco.org

Carol Bealor is the director at the Cass County Friend of the Court.