Shel Harrington

Author Archives: Shel Harrington


10 Ways to ROCK Being a Long-Distance Parent

After divorce, it’s often difficult for both parent and child when one household becomes two. The child sees each parent less, each parent sees the child less. Add in relocation of one parent to the mix, and a tough situation gets tougher. Not only do the parents have to figure out how transportation is going to work for physical visits, the long-distant parent has to figure out how to stay connected to the child during the long gaps  between being together. Skype, Facetime, and other digital options allow for more satisfying long-distance interaction than the limitations of traditional phone calls, and text messaging can help child and parent have spontaneous interaction. But let’s get a little creative about how you can be there for your child when you can’t physically be there. Here are 10 ideas to help you rock being a long-distance parent:

  1. Mail a card or letter. Yes, “snail mail.”  Sending cards for major holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays – may be obvious choices, but are always welcome. Receiving cards for lesser holidays – think Valentine’s Day, Halloween, or an obscure National Donut Day – will be a pleasant surprise. Even more unexpected, a card or hand-written note just to say: Hi! I’m thinking of you! Who doesn’t like to receive mail with their name on it? If it comes in a bright envelope, or contains stickers, even better!
  2.  Gift a magazine subscription. There are  magazines for just about any hobby or interest one can come up with. Find one that corresponds with your child’s interests, and send him a subscription. Every month when he receives the latest issue, he’ll be reminded that you love him and care about what interests him.
  3. Talk to teachers. It’s easy to get out-of-the-loop when you’re not local – especially if your ex was the parent who dealt more with school relations prior to divorce. Make an effort to have first-hand information about how your child is doing in school and any academic or social problems she may be having. While it’s not fair to ask teachers to do everything twice, make sure the teacher has your email address and request that you be included on emails that are sent out. You can also ask if it is possible to schedule a parent/teacher meeting via phone or digital  means. Check the school’s website on a regular basis to stay in-the-know about policies, upcoming events, and other helpful information.
  4. Subscribe to the hometown newspaper. This will keep you informed about the local sports, give you a heads-up about upcoming events that might be relevant for your child’s visitation or give you gift ideas, and can give you topics of mutual interest to chat with your child about.
  5. Record yourself reading. While it’s enjoyable to read a story to a child during a virtual visit when you can see each other’s face, it ends with the call. Sending your child an audio or video of you reading a favorite story allows her to experience a missing-parent-fix even when you’re not available. Have fun with it – maybe a story of the month? Or an ongoing story that has weekly installments?
  6. Clip pictures, cartoons, articles to share. Pop them in the mail with a post-it note that says “this made me think of you,” take a picture and text it  with a “thought this would crack you up,” or attach it in an email with “this reminded me of when we . . . ” I still have a couple of comics my mother snipped out of a Sunday paper decades ago and gave me because they reminded her of amusing exchanges we’d had. Those (now yellowed) comics still have the power to put a smile on my face and make me feel special!
  7. Watch a TV show together. This can be done in real-time, with phone calls during commercials to compare notes on the show’s progress. Or record it, watch at the designated time, texting comments during the show with a phone call to trade reactions to the ending. If a weekly series doesn’t work in the schedule, maybe a virtual movie date fits the bill – complete with bowls of microwaved popcorn at each home prepared directly prior to the coordinated screening!
  8. Start a book club.   Take turns picking out the book-of-the-month, then coordinate how many pages will be read during a specific time frame. Keep a joint online book log of the books you read, how you both rated them, and any comments each had to make about the read. It will be fun to watch the list grow! The personal book club also works well with multiple children if the children are close enough in age and/or reading ability.
  9. Collaborate on a volunteer project.  Working with your child, in spite of the miles between you, to accomplish the common goal of doing something kind for somebody else is a precious bonding experience. There are many charities that appreciate hand-crafted donated items that bring comfort. Here’s some examples: For sewers: each of you could make cloth doll or teddy bear parts, then assemble and stuff when together and donate to shelters or child foster care programs. For knitters: each knit or crochet individual squares that can be pieced together during physical visits and donated to homeless shelters or for prizes for fund-raising charity events. For the young artists: You provide cardstock or construction paper, your child makes greeting cards with hand-drawn pictures and well wishes (he can show you his growing collection during virtual visits!), and when you’re together you deliver them to a children’s hospital or mail them to service members. Click HERE for more kid-friendly volunteer projects from Parenting.
  10. Give something that grows. Whether it arrives in the mail or accompanies your child home after a visit, something that grows delights and is a lovely reminder of how your love for the child grows daily. There are fast-growing options for almost any environment. For outdoors, seed packets for wildflowers or cucumbers work. For indoors, try an Amaryllis in a pot or a windowsill herb garden kit. And, for anyone, anywhere, anytime, the ever-popular and timeless Chia Pet. Yes, they still exist! From dinosaurs, to cartoon characters, people to animals, and lots of strange stuff in between, there is a Chia Pet that will correspond with your child’s interest! (Check out some of the options HERE!)

Even though it is tough for you and your child to be so far away from each other for much of the year, the “distance” doesn’t have to mean “disconnect.” With a little creativity you can close up those miles, enjoy quality time with your child even when you can’t be in the same place, and rock being a long-distance parent!







Clear and Present Danger – 10 Gifts NOT to Give Your Spouse

Clear and Present Danger - 10 Gifts NOT to Give Your Spouse

Sure the thought counts, but the gift itself matters, too. Some gifts present a clear and present danger when bestowed upon a spouse and should be avoided at all costs. Here are 10 gifts that could be hazardous to your marriage:

  1. Appliances.  If it cooks or cleans, it is probably something that should not be wrapped up and put under the Christmas tree. Now I’m not talking about things like the fancy pasta-maker your cheffy spouse has been drooling over or anything your foodie mate has put on their Christmas list. I’m talking about the cookware, the vacuum cleaner, and other such productive items that there just isn’t enough wrapping paper or bows to turn them into appealing gifts!

2. Sexy underwear (or anything else you’re dying to see them in ). Nothing says “It’s all about me” more than gifting something that makes you happier than the recipient.

3. Exercise equipment. This category includes gym memberships and healthy-eating cookbooks. Unless you are providing something they specifically requested, your well-intentioned gift may not be well-received!

4. Home improvements. Even if one spouse has been wanting a bigger bathroom or modernized cabinets, making the project “a gift” sets up the recipient to be responsible for any mishaps or frustrations that might be part of the process. (Just because it doesn’t make a great gift, doesn’t mean you can’t still use the big home-improvement announcement to earn additional spousal-brownie-points!)

5. Gift card. Think about it – how different is that from just handing your spouse some cash and telling them to go buy their own gift? Well, there is one difference – you are now dictating exactly where they must buy their own gift from.

6. Anything on your own wish list. See #2, above.

7. Perfume or cologne they’ve never worn before. First of all, there may be a reason they’ve never worn it. Second, what it smells like on the paper tester isn’t necessarily what it’s going to smell like on someone’s body. Unless indicated otherwise, assume your spouse wants some say about how they smell.

8. That item you have both been planning and saving for. Do NOT “surprise” your spouse by making the final decision on the vacation you have been debating for the last few months or picking the recliner that will sit for years to come in the living room. And examine the reasons you would even want to – is it intended to delight, or put an end to a discussion you are tired of having? If you immediately responded: “to delight, of course,” you need to realize that might not be the same conclusion your spouse reaches.

9. Nothing. Even if that is what they ask for. Gift-giving is about putting yourself out there to do something kind for the one you love. “Nothing” does not serve that goal. Nor does it honor your mate. “Something” does not have to be expensive, extravagant, or even wrap-able. It just has to be a little more thoughtful than “nothing.”

10. Anything that comes with payments. Yes, this is worse than nothing. It is the exact opposite of “the gift that keeps on giving.” It is the gift that keeps depleting. No gift should come with a bill.


21 Fun Fall Date-Your-Mate Ideas

21 Fun Fall Date-Your_Mate Ideas

It’s arrived! That wonderful crisp fall weather that makes you want to break out the cozy sweaters and head out with your mate to do something fun. There are some activities that are uniquely autumn entertainment and others that are enhanced when done in the fall. So grab your mate and celebrate the season with some of these great fall date ideas!

  1. Celebrate with Cider. Nothing says “you’re the apple of my eye” like a cider toast! Start off with a pick-your-own apples orchard experience and end up at the Cider Mill for well-earned refreshment. In addition to cider, mills often offer doughnuts, pastries, and other apple products that will allow you to extend the date to morning breakfast. If you don’t already have a favorite cider mill, check out this wonderful United States Cider Guide to find one near you!
  2. Get a-MAZED. Whether carved out of a cornfield or created with bales of hay, finding your way through a maze with the one you love can, indeed, be amazing! Check the entertainment section of your newspaper or call local nurseries for information about maze locations. For corn mazes, search this helpful Corn Mazes of America Guide.Fall Date Ideas
  3. Flea Market Finds. If you enjoy wandering around flea markets, there’s no better time to do so than fall. Many vendors are offering bargains on their bargains because they don’t want to have to store inventory over the cold months. It’s a great time to pick up those fixable chairs or paintable tins to work on together during the upcoming stay-indoors weather!
  4. Wine tasting. It’s not just a California activity! There are wineries in every state – over 8000 of them. This Wineries By State Guide will help you find those closest to you.
  5. Go Fly a Kite. Really! Nothing like a fall breeze to make your spirits – and your kites – soar! You can make your own or purchase an inexpensive kite kit at a big box store.
  6. Leaf jumping. Yes, some assembly required. You need a rake, a shedding tree, and a willingness to recreate a wonderful childhood memory. Instructions: rake leaves in pile, take a running jump together directly into the pile, laugh yourselves silly. Repeat.Fall Date Ideas
  7. Chili Cook-off. What goes perfect with chili? A little healthy competition. You and your mate each pick your favorite chili recipe (IF you use one!), shop for the ingredients together, then return home to craft your dish. Invite some honest friends to do the judging for you and the eating with you. Loser does the dishes!
  8. Pumpkin delight. Decorating pumpkins doesn’t have to be slimy – they can be painted, bedazzled, dipped, and decked out. demonstrates 35 ways to decorate without carving.  For those of you who are traditionalists, jack-o-lantern ideas abound on the internet – google it or check out Pinterest.Fall Date Ideas
  9. Fall Foliage Tour. Whether it is an extended drive through a colorful neighborhood, or a daytrip to a scenic part of your state, pack a thermos of something warm and delicious, plug in your favorite music and enjoy the ride!
  10. Ziplining. If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous, skip the kite-flying and fly yourself! Sharing a zipline experience – soaring over the earth together and hearing the squeals that one makes during such an event – is a truly bonding event! Search online for locations.
  11. Fair fun. The fall is rich with state fairs, county fairs, and fall festivals. Wandering around a fair often feels like a visit back to simpler times with the latest fried food concoction thrown in (deep-fried Snickers anybody?) And there’s no better place for people-watching!
  12. Hayride. Chances are if you have located a maze in the vicinity, you’ll find a hayride opportunity close by! The moonlight rides offer wonderful opportunities to snuggle up close with your mate, a flannel throw and a steaming mug of cocoa for two!
  13. Oktoberfest. Enjoy the music, dancing, German fare and beer of a good old-fashioned Oktoberfest. If you don’t know where one is, call the closest German restaurant – they’ll know!
  14. Brewery tour – If you like the idea of Octoberfest, but without the music, dancing, and German fare, this might be for you. Wikepedia offers a list of breweries in each state.
  15. Drive-in Movie. Go retro! If you don’t have an old car without a console, maybe you can borrow a beater from a friend or relative – snuggling up in the privacy of your car with the cool autumn air blowing through is one of the perks!
  16. Miniature Golf. No expertise required! If you’re wondering if there are any miniature golf courses left, it’s been too long since you’ve taken a swing – I bet there is one closer than you think!Fall Date Ideas
  17. Outdoor combo. Pack up a picnic lunch (maybe some of the leftover chili from the cookoff?) and hike or bike your way over a scenic path – preferably a leaf-strewn path so you can hear seasonal crunch!
  18. Farmer’s Market. A great way to stretch your legs while checking out the freshest of the season’s veggies. The colorful bounty is sure to inspire dinner plans!
  19. Feed the Birds. Make some hanging suet bird feeders to decorate your yard and keep your feathered-friends well-nourished as their food sources decline. You’ll find many how-to instructions online – here’s one from
  20. Stone rubbing. Where art and graveyards collide. There are some beautiful cemeteries out there – full of history and amazing artistry. Celebrate the season and get your shiver on by heading over to one with paper and pencils and make some art of your own. For an explanation of what it is and how it came about, click HERE. For a pretty comprehensive how-to, this illustrated WIKI article is helpful.Fall Date Ideas
  21. Celebrate World Kindness Day. The actual holiday falls on November 13, but feel free to beat the kindness rush by spending an afternoon enjoying some random acts together. Help someone else enjoy fall by leaving a potted mum plant on a porch, raking their leaves, making them a pine cone door wreath, or delivering a cup of steaming pumpkin spice latte.

You didn’t really think you were going to get all the way through  an article about fall without seeing the words “pumpkin spice” did you??



7 Things Your Divorce Lawyer Wants You to Know

7 Things Your Divorce Lawyer Wants You to KnowDivorce is rarely easy and rarely cheap. But there are things you can do to make the process less difficult and less expensive. After two decades of practicing Family Law and hearing other Family Law attorneys express concern (read: complain) about the same things, I’ve compiled a short list of things your divorce lawyer wants you to know so you can help them better serve you.

  1. Give me the straight scoop on your parenting. Don’t exaggerate the amount of time you spend with the children or the frequency that you bathe, feed, tutor, or otherwise care for them. I get that when both parents live in the same house, the division of labor often results in one parent being more hands-on with the children than the other. If the other parent was the primary care-giver, I need to hear it from you, not opposing counsel in front of the judge. Whether you weren’t as attentive as maybe you could/should have been or you weren’t available because of employment/school/health issues/etc., the result is the same. If you want to have a strong parenting role after the divorce, we have to address the changes that need to be made and available resources for making those changes. On the other hand, don’t minimize the other parent’s parenting role. Unless there are safety issues, the children are going to be spending significant amounts of time with the other parent. The more accurate the information you provide me, the better able I will be to help you craft a proposed custody arrangement that takes into account the strengths of the other parent and the real weaknesses that need to be addressed.
  2. Being organized saves you money. If I ask you to bring me a summary and documentation of your bills, debts, and expenses, please don’t drop off a shoebox stuffed with documents. Especially dog-chewed, coffee-dribbled, food-splattered documents. (Think about how you would feel if I sent you a document smeared with a bit of my breakfast jelly or that had a bit of squashed bug on it from when I used it as a fly-swatter. Disgusting, right?) Don’t pay me to sort through your stuff – or for the gloves I might have to purchase to do so! Organize all in chronological order, substitute copies of what is too gross to touch, and attach a typed summary so I know what I’m looking at. The same goes for text messages, emails, and notes that you have made for the case.
  3. Don’t take it personally if I interrupt you. I’m not saying it’s okay for me to be rude and I’m not saying I don’t care about your history. But I am very aware of the fact that every minute we speak costs you money. While I do need to have all relevant information regarding your circumstances, if our conversation is going off on a tangent, is repetitive, or otherwise not serving you well, I’m going to move things along.
  4. Don’t let me get you more than you want. If you don’t think you can do a 50/50 parenting schedule because of your own conflicts or how you think it would affect the children, make that clear to me. Just because I can obtain a more expansive visitation arrangement doesn’t mean that is what is best for you or your children – help me understand the dynamic. And the same goes for property – don’t get caught up in arguing for half the stuff, then “winning” a property dispute to get something you don’t care about or have to pay to store. That’s not really a win. Help me help you save money by only pursuing what is really important to you.
  5. Know that I’ve heard it all before. Don’t “spare me” the uncomfortable points. While I’m not asking you for intimate details, it is relevant if you engage in an alternative lifestyle, have addictions, phobias, or any other situation that you are embarrassed about. I can’t properly advise you and help you navigate through situations  I am unaware of. And to make matters worse, if such topics come up for the first time from your spouse’s attorney or, worse yet, in front of the judge, you suffer the humiliation you were seeking to avoid as well as damaged credibility.
  6. Tell me if you don’t understand. And don’t apologize for what you do not know or this being your “first time through this.” Hopefully, it will be your only time through this – I’m not interested in helping you get good at it. I’m interested in helping you get through it with the least amount of difficulty possible given the circumstances. Remember: I know nothing about how to navigate in your world. Whether you teach school, make shoelaces, or clean teeth, I would have a hundred questions to ask you if I were trying to understand and help you do your job. If I have explained it and you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. As many times as you need to. Just like I need to understand your circumstances and your goals in the matter, you need to understand the procedure and what I’m doing. We are a team – it takes both of us to get this done and we have to be on the same page.
  7. You have to tell me the truth. If I’m going to be able to do my job and obtain the best legal results possible given the facts, I have to actually have the facts. All of them. Don’t lie to me. Ever. About anything. Don’t sugar coat, share information selectively, minimize the negatives or exaggerate the positives. Just give it to me straight. And I promise I’ll do the same in return.






10 Fun Father’s Day Finds

10 Fun Father's Day FindsLooking for a great gift for your husband, your dad or that special father in your life? Skip the predictable shirt, tie and golf balls and go right to the fun stuff! No matter what your budget is, you’ll find a gift from these 10 Fun Father’s Day Finds guaranteed to make him smile!

  1. Spaceman USB Light – the bright LED light is out of this world! Opening and closing the lunar walker’s visor turns him on or off and the long, flexible cord makes it easy to adjust the direction of his glow! ($20)

10 Fun Father's Day Finds2. Bicycle Pizza Cutter – for a cycle enthusiast or the guy who makes a mean pizza, here’s a pizza cutter with pizzaz! ($12)

10 Fun Father's Day Finds3. Superman book support – what better gift is there to give that supportive guy who loves to read?! ($35 each)

10 Fun Father's Day Finds10 Fun Father's Day Finds4. Batman apron – If your super hero is more into cooking than reading, how about an apron to celebrate his super strength? ($12)

10 Fun Father's Day Finds5. Beef Jerky Kit – who says guys don’t do crafty? Just add meat to this do-it-yourself jerky kit to give a gift with a little spice! ($30)

10 Fun Father's Day Finds

6. Sriracha key chain – For the guy who eats on the go and doesn’t like to be without his heat, this little handy-dandy refillable sriracha bottle keychain serves a dual purpose. Don’t forget to have a bottle of sriracha handy to fill from – you don’t want to be like the gifter who gives the toy without the batteries! (Starting from $5 for a single on up for sets)

10 Fun Father's Day Finds7. Hammer and nail organizer – because no matter what the job, there’s just no reason to have a dull desk! ($58)

10 Fun Father's Day Finds8. Coffee cookie mug – Sweeten his morning coffee with a stash of his favorite cookies ($18 for the mug – you’re on your own for the cookies!)

10 Fun Father's Day Finds9. Exercise mat – Now here’s a yoga mat that stands out in a crowd. Did I say “yoga mat?” I meant to say BROga mat! ($40-$70 – unless you save by catching the sale that ends on June 20!)

10 Fun Father's Day Finds10. The Cooper Kit – For the dad with children from 5 to 9 years old – the one who’s still a kid-at-heart himself –  the Cooper Kit might be the perfect gift. It’s a subscription to a mini adventure. Every 3 months a box arrives full of fun for dad and offspring to work on together. A bit of a splurge at $260 for the four deliveries, it turns Father’s Day into Father/Child year!

10 Fun Father's Day Finds





Divorce: How You Can Help a Friend Going Through It

How You Can Help During DivorceOften when we hear about a friend or loved one getting a divorce, we just don’t know what to say or do. We want to be supportive, encouraging, helpful –  but struggle with being presumptuous or intrusive in our attempts to offer assistance.

Recently I was invited to speak at a Stephen Ministry meeting when the group was going through training on how to minister to and assist people in the community who are dealing with divorce.  The group leader asked me to help them understand the process of divorce and suggest ways to help those going through it. After two decades of practicing Family Law and working with men. women and children who are going through the process, it wasn’t difficult to come up with a list of challenges that divorcing parties often need help with!

When making an offer of help, be specific. While saying things like Please call if you need anything  or Let me know if I can help, may be sincere offers, they’re generally not helpful offers. Such statements shift the obligation. They require the person needing assistance to initiate contact and request a favor. Many are not comfortable with one or both of those actions. Here are some suggestions for specific offers to make and actions to take during the different stages of divorce that can lighten the load a bit for the divorcing friend – whether male or female – you seek to help.


  • Encourage your friend to see a counselor if she seems to be struggling emotionally. Whether your friend wants the divorce or not, there is much to deal with and process. Not only her own feelings – which may include combinations of sadness, grief, fright, guilt, abandonment, loneliness, depression, confusion, bewilderment, anger, rage, jealousy, vindictiveness, relief, happiness, optimism – but the feelings of her children, friends and family members have to be dealt with. Even if your friend seems to have a good support system of friends and family, it is helpful to have someone to talk to who is not vested in the situation. In other words, a counselor doesn’t love your friend. He’s an objective ear trained to listen and provide feedback and tools to help one navigate evolving situations. A counselor doesn’t start out with a bias about whether or not a divorce or reconciliation should take place, and he doesn’t have an existing opinion about  a spouse. Counselors have the ability to assist from an objective viewpoint – something family and friends often aren’t able to do.
  • Encourage your friend to seek the advice of a Family Law attorney. Just because you get information from an attorney doesn’t mean you have to get a divorce. It is a way to understand what one’s legal rights are with regard to custody, child support, property division, alimony and, in cases where domestic abuse exists, protective orders. It’s also helpful to understand how the process of divorce works in the legal system so that one can have realistic expectations if matters go forward. In addition, an attorney can provide helpful tips regarding behaviors that help or hurt a case during the process. For tips on finding a good Family Law Attorney, click HERE.
  • Offer to go with them to a consultation. Meeting with an attorney can be intimidating for some. Your friend might welcome the moral support of your presence – and a second set of ears can be an asset. It’s easy to miss information offered if one is still processing what they have heard previously, are focused on what they will ask next, or are dealing with their own nerves.
  • Focus on faith. If prayer is meaningful to your friend and something you are comfortable with, ask what she would like you to pray specifically about. The answer may surprise you – as well as give you insight into additional ways you might be able to assist.


  • Go with your friend to observe a similar court proceeding, conducted by the Judge assigned to his case, prior to his own matter being heard. Seeing the courtroom environment ahead of time, witnessing the judge’s demeanor when the focus is on other parties, and seeing how the process works can help alleviate fear of the unknown and diminish trial day jitters.
  • Ask if they would like you to attend their hearing to be moral support in the courtroom. Such hearings can get personal, so you should ask if they would be comfortable with you there, but often those who would normally be their moral support are also witnesses who will not be allowed to stay in the courtroom with them.
  • Offer to babysit. There is a lot going on for parents during the divorce process that can be even more challenging when they don’t have child care assistance for activities that are not part of their regular routine, such as:
    • Meetings with their lawyer
    • Attending counseling or support groups
    • Attending divorce-related parenting classes
    • Attending mediation
    • Needing some alone time
  • Take their children for an outing. During a divorce, a parent may have to sort through property that is going to be divided and/or pack up belongings. Some of these chores are less difficult to do when the children are not present.

  • Provide an easy meal – something that can be warmed in one container or frozen if not eaten immediately. This is a gesture that will be well-received on long work days, court days, or as a “thinking of you” gesture.
  • Let them know you remember. A quick phone call, text, email, etc. on court day or the night before to let them know you are thinking of them and/or praying for them will be appreciated.
  • Gift them comfort. Provide a small object they can feel in their pocket to remind them they’re not alone, such as a medal, worry stone, cross, shell or an inspirational saying.
  • Gift them whimsy. Drop off or send a whimsical lift-your-spirits gift such as a flowering plant, funny book (The Best of Herman is hard to beat!), or a silly refrigerator magnet.
  • Check the dates. Find out if there any special dates coming up – birthday, anniversary – that might be especially difficult or lonely for them. A lunch outing or enjoying a light movie together might be a welcome invitation.


  • Acknowledge a final Order doesn’t mean finality. Often the moral support team drifts away after the “crisis” is over. But changes for those who are recently divorced are ongoing. There may be financial struggles, parenting issues and other challenges which result from one person running a household that used to be run by two. The occasional just-checking-in/thinking-of-you/praying-for-you type communication will be appreciated.
  • Remember them on holidays. If they didn’t have children and local family, some of those first holidays can be lonely. If they do have children, the holidays the children spend with the other parent can be very difficult.
  • Babysitting needs are ongoing. Especially for parents who have the children full-time because of the other parent’s unavailability due to court restrictions or geographic distance. Some of the weekend or after-daycare-hours needs for childcare help include counseling sessions, support-group meetings, and educational pursuits. The ultimate gift for those recently divorced parents may just be whisking away their kids for a time, thus enabling the parents to revel in the luxury of having their home – and potentially an uninterrupted bubble bath – to themselves for a few hours!

Child Custody: 5 FAQs Answered

5 FAQs about Child Custody AnsweredChild custody battles are often the most difficult part of divorce proceedings. Property can be divided or sold, debts can be assigned to one party or the other, but how custody/visitation plans are structured is much more complex. As  mothers and fathers contemplate divorce or (if not married to each other) paternity actions, they often find themselves with numerous questions. They want to know how things work legally, what their rights are regarding the children, and what rights the children have.  After 23 years of practicing  Family Law, I have worked with hundreds of divorcing parents and noted some concerns are universal. Here are 5 questions that most parents have about custody.

  1. At what age can a child decide which parent the child wants to live with?

Hopefully no parent is actually asking a child  to make the decision of which parent they would like to live with. That’s like asking them to pick which parent they like better – it’s a lousy position to put a child in even if they have a clear preference. Having said that, most states have an age where a child can express what their preference is, but ultimately the judge still makes the final decision. The judge is not bound by the child’s request if he or she does not feel that it is in the best interest of the child to place the child as requested. The judge will take into consideration the ability of each parent to care for the child, what the environment of each is, and the reasons the child has a preference. The older a child is, the more likely the judge is to honor the child’s request if it is not detrimental to the child to do so. While each state can make its own  laws regarding  custody and the age at which the court gives deference to a child’s preference, many states take the position that by the time a child  is twelve years old they have the maturity to express a preference and their reasons for having a preference with regard to living with one parent or the other. Even states with a stated age usually have provisions in their laws which allow the judge to make a decision contrary to the child’s request if the child does not have the maturity to properly express a preference and/or if the request would not be in the child’s best interest.

  1. Are mothers more likely to be awarded custody than fathers?

There was a time when the answer to this question would have been yes, but that is generally no longer the case. While there may be individual judges that have gender biases, most judges start with the premise that a child should have as much contact with both parents as is possible. While  fathers are awarded custody more often than they once were, the general trend is toward co-parenting options. Whether it is called joint custody, co-parenting, shared parenting or another name, the intent is to ensure that the children have access to both parents and that both parents are allowed to actually parent versus being someone the children simply visit. If the parties are unable to cooperate, one parent has a history of addiction or abuse,  or the parties are unable to communicate because of work or geographic hindrances, the judge will award custody to one parent and an appropriate visitation schedule to the other taking into account the specific circumstances.

  1. Will the judge split up siblings?

Most judges try to protect children by keeping things as stable as possible in the midst of divorce and will not split up siblings casually. But custody is determined on a case-by-case and child-by-child basis. Some situations when a judge might consider splitting up siblings are (1) if children of a certain age request it, (2) if there is substantial/destructive conflicts between siblings, (3) the children have different needs that can best be met by a particular parent, and (4) other facts specific to the case that would result in it being in the best interest of the children to do so. Even if custody of the children is divided between the parents, visitation can still be synced in a way that the siblings are together on weekends, holidays and summer school breaks.

  1. Will the child have to testify in court?

It is not likely. Judges have the discretion to speak with a child in their chambers if they want to receive information from the child and/or a child or parent has requested that the child’s input be received. Depending on the state, attorneys, the child’s Guardian Ad Litem,* or a court reporter may be allowed to be present while the child is being interviewed. The judge tries to balance the parents’ rights to due process with protecting the child from the pressure of testifying in front of parents and any repercussions that might result from testimony that displeased a parent.

  5. Can a custody order be changed in the future?

Yes. There are two ways a custody order can be changed. First, if a parent believes that the judge made a legal mistake with regard to the custodial decision made at trial, the ruling can be appealed if done so within the time frames set forth in the state law. Second, and more common, is if there is a change of circumstance since the original order that affects the best interest of the child.  Typical changes that could warrant modifying the custody order include a problem arising with the custodial parent, a parent relocating, or a child getting older and expressing a preference. In either case, a Family Law attorney should be consulted  to ensure that the parent understands what needs  to be proved, what the legal procedure is, and the chances of being able to accomplish the desired modification.

*A Guardian Ad Litem is a representative for the child who serves the dual role of representing the child's position and advocating for what's in the best interest of the child even if it conflicts with the child's preference.

If you found this article helpful, you might like:

Divorce Through a Child’s Eyes      

Divorcing Parents, Listen to the Judge      

5 Myths About Divorce  



The Ultimate Valentine for You and Your Spouse

The Ultimate Valentine for You and Your SpouseAre you looking for the perfect way to express your love to you favorite Valentine? Something that says I am SO grateful I have you in my life? Something that has more impact than chocolates and more staying power than flowers? Maybe the best gift you and your spouse can give each other is Project Valentine.

You and your mate know that you are loved – that each of you think the other is special. How about joining together to create that same wonderful feeling for someone else? There are so many people who don’t have a Valentine – and you both are in the perfect place to say: “Will you be mine?”

Use the funds you would have spent on each other for over-priced flowers (you know costs double for V-day, right?) and unnecessary chocolate (no excuses to sabotage those New Years Resolutions!) to buy Valentines or sweet treats for somebody who could use some love.

Here are some Project Valentine ideas:

  • Pass out valentines at a local nursing or retirement home. If you have a friendly dog and the staff okays it, bring the pet with you to give those residents some double lovin’!
  • Drop off a batch of heart-shaped cookies or Valentine cupcakes to your police or fire department with a note letting them know that you are delivering them with love and in appreciation for the (sometimes thankless) services they provide to the community. Employees at City Hall and your local post office will probably also appreciate (and feel appreciated by) such a shout-out!
  • Deliver a flowering windowsill plant to the widow/widower in your neighborhood or apartment building with a Valentine that tells them what a special neighbor/person they are.
  • Check the website for a local animal shelter or rescue for a “what we need” list. Bring over the supplies you want to donate along with some valentines and mini boxes of chocolates for the volunteers who staff it – showing them a little love in appreciation for the love they show their animals.

Project Valentine is the perfect gift for you and your spouse to give each other. What better way to express your love than by helping others feel it first hand?

[Note: Project Valentine could be one of those experiences that ends up being one of those “jar moments” referred to in the last post!]

The New Year’s Resolution Spouses Should Still Make

new years res blog editNo excuses on this one. It’s not too late for you and your spouse to make a New Year’s Resolution. If your annual New Year’s Resolution is to not make one, make an exception this year. If you think you have already made enough/too many resolutions, I promise you there is room for this one, too – and it just may be the only one you actually keep!

It is an amazingly simple concept that has been chatted about over the past couple of years. You may have heard it referred to as “The Jar.” But it could just as correctly be called The Can, The Box,  or The Cool Pottery Bowl. My husband, Steve, and I gave it a try in 2015, and enjoyed the result so much it will now be an annual tradition!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Grab the container of your choice and set it in a place where you will both see it often.
  2. When something of note occurs – your spouse gets a raise, you accomplish a new goal, a dear friend shows up for a surprise visit – jot it down on a slip of paper with the date and drop it into the container.
  3. Celebrate at year end by grabbing your favorite festive beverage, and take turns pulling notes out of the container to read to each other. In other words, remind yourselves of the highlights of the past year and the meaningful moments you might have otherwise forgotten!

The New Year's Resolution Spouses Should Still MakeAs we sat down to read on New Year’s Eve, I knew I’d find notes summarizing the wonderful visit we had with my folks in Florida, the articles I’d published, the award my husband received, the visitors we’d enjoyed, as well as a few challenges we’d encountered. But I’d forgotten so much! Like the night we had friends over for cards and one silly joke had the four of us doubled over with laughter, eyes streaming (which, of course, had Steve and I laughing all over again!) And the special day we had spent with Steve’s mother – one where signs of her dementia were minimal. And the movie that sparked a conversation between us that we would not have otherwise had.

I have to admit that Steve wasn’t as enthusiastic about the project as I was back in January of last year. But, he loves me – so he humors me on such things. However, after the enjoyable note-reading session that had us chuckling, quietly remembering, chatting about progress made and plans to come, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of those notes with his handwriting on them as we celebrate our next New Year’s Eve!

While it would be pretty hard to screw up “The Jar” resolution, here’s a few tips that we found made it work:

  • Keep the container in a place where it’s easy to get to and you both see it often. Out-of-sight really is out-of-mind in this case.
  • While any container will work, of course, I liked using the clear jar because existing notes served as reminders to write others and  I could see the memories adding up.
  • Avoid paper and pen hunts by keeping a pen and a mini notepad right in the container.

The New Year's Resolution Spouses Should Still MakeAn unexpected benefit of the project was the mindfulness we developed about looking out for special moments in our daily lives. As the year moved on, we actually referred to having “a jar moment,” said “there’s one for the jar,” and had friends ask us if an outing we enjoyed together was “going to make the jar.” While it took only seconds at a time to do throughout the months, we ended our year with a lasting gratitude as we unfolded and read reminders of a year filled with blessings.

What other New Year Resolution could you make that cost no money, takes almost no time, and has such an uplifting result??

 Here’s wishing you and your spouse a year filled with wonderful moments that “make the jar!”


Divorce and Holiday Visitation – 5 Ways to Make it Easier

Divorce and Holiday Visitation - 5 Ways to Make it EasierOne of the toughest situations to deal with in the aftermath of divorce is holiday visitation with the children. As if the holiday season by itself wasn’t stressful enough, dealing with only having the children for part of the holiday in addition to making sure they get to where they’re suppose to be for the other part of the holiday can send stress levels right off the chart! As a Family Law attorney who often represents children, I field a lot of calls from frustrated parents this time of year – and here’s what I tell them. Whether there are hard feelings to or from your ex or you both get along great, these five tips can make the holiday visitation less stressful for you, your ex, and – more importantly – your children.

1.  Transition your child before the doorbell rings. I’m often told by parents that the child just doesn’t want to go to the other parent’s for the holidays, they want to stay right where they are. This may be true, and/or there may be a legitimate reason the child feels this way. But often the reluctance to go is because they are enjoying what they’re doing or are afraid they’re going to miss out on something. To overcome the latter two, prepare ahead of time. Watch how you talk about activities the child won’t be a part of – don’t tell him “how sad” you will be that he can’t be there for them. There’s nothing to be sad about (on the outside!) because he gets to spend time with the other parent, too. Make sure the game being played or movie being watched ends a substantial amount of time before the other parent picks up to avoid the child ending up being resentful that he has to “stop having fun” when it’s time to go.

2. Have the extra packing done, too. Most people don’t wait until the last minute to pack up the child’s visitation suitcase with clothes, nightwear and toiletries. But those little last-minute round-ups that leave the ex cooling his or her heels at the door (deliberately??) are unnecessary. Make a checklist as you think of things the child needs to have with her (medicine, gifts for the other family members, that book for the report she has to write over the break) and make sure they are packed and ready to go well ahead of time. Give your child the gift of a stress-free (or at least less-stressed) transition – one where they don’t start out with an irritated parent annoyed at them or grumbling about you.

3. Limit incoming phone and text message interruptions. Unless there is a court-ordered (or previously agreed-upon) phone visitation time, you don’t have to answer phone calls from the other parent during meals, gift exchanges, movies, family gatherings and other events where it would be disruptive to the child. I am not suggesting you don’t allow phone visitation during your holiday period with your child. On the contrary, I’m suggesting you plan for it. Have the child call the other parent, or answer calls, during times when the child is not engaged in fun events. Initiate (or take) the calls in a quiet place or room free of distractions so that the child can enjoy his chat with the other parent and not “just get through” it.

4. Limit outgoing phone and text message intrusions. Assume your ex has read the paragraph above and try to be sensitive about the intrusiveness of your own visitation calls. While negotiating prior to the visit for set times to speak to the child via phone may seem like a good idea, psychologist Arlene Schaefer says that arrangement is “all about the parents.” She says kids don’t like to be ripped from what they’re doing to have a conversation they often don’t feel like having – which can leave the calling parent feeling slighted and resentful toward the other parent who is perceived as not encouraging the contact. The better arrangement includes flexibility – maybe an agreement for the child to call “after her shower” or in the morning while breakfast is being cooked.

5. Anticipate and plan for the obstacles. Two complaints I hear often from divorced parents is that their ex is always late for exchanges and/or the  the child is tuckered out upon arrival. Whether it’s deliberate sabotage or just insensitivity, the result of chronic lateness or turning over sleep-deprived children is the same – conflict, more stress, and potentially ruined plans. You have no power to change the offender – but you can prepare for the offense. Don’t create tight deadlines on yourself by making plans that you can only be timely for if the other parent is timely. Allow plenty of time between pick-up and any event – it’s easier to “kill time” if you’re early than dealing with stress, frustration and resentment that accompany rushing to make it to wherever you’re headed. If your child routinely is tired when she arrives from the other parent’s custody, plan ahead so that she has time to take a nap before heading out for the evening’s entertainment. Or factor in some down-time on the first day of visitation. Or plan for an early evening on the night of arrival so that on the first full day of visitation everyone can hit the ground running. While it may not seem right that you should have to construct your plans around the other parent’s offending behavior, doing so totally annihilates you ex’s power to ruin your plans or create a stressful start to your holiday time with your child.

You may be interested in this related post:

What Children Want Their Divorced Parents to Know About the Holidays

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