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Appellate Division Reminds Courts of Parenting Coordinators’ Limited Authority

In a decision made by the New Jersey Appellate Division last month, the appeals court reminded both Family Part judges and litigants of the circumscribed role held by Parenting Coordinators in resolving New Jersey family law disputes.

If you’ve been before a New Jersey Family Part judge on a custodial matter, you may have first-hand experience with Parenting Coordinators (PCs). PCs have been appointed by Family Part judges to attempt to mediate smaller disputes between parents for over ten years, intended as a facilitator of improved communication and compromise between parents. In 2007, New Jersey implemented a pilot program in a number of counties where PCs were made a formal part of the court process and entrusted with making recommendations based on their knowledge of conflicts, although they were explicitly barred from making binding modifications to existing orders or judgments. Some courts in counties that had not participated in the pilot program, however, had imbued their PCs with greater decision-making authority, arguing that they were not subject to the restrictions that the pilot program had placed on PCs. However, the Appellate Division issued a decision that disapproved of this practice, ruling that PC decisions could not stand in for a judge’s ultimate responsibility to resolve matters before the Family Part.

Nevertheless, over-burdened Family Part judges have continued to allow PCs to take on a large amount of responsibility in resolving custodial disputes, resulting in another ruling from the Appellate Division decrying the practice. The recent decision came in a case titled Parish v. Kluger, concerning two divorced parents who had long been embroiled in conflict before a Family Part judge. In the most recent conflict, the father had sought a modification of the parenting time schedule as established in the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA). The father asserted that the mother had prevented him from having the parenting time to which he was entitled under the MSA, and that a PC appointed by the court had failed to issue the written recommendations regarding a revised schedule, as she had promised she would. For this reason, the father also sought the termination of the PC’s services. The mother agreed that the existing parenting time schedule needed to be revised, but argued that it was the father’s apathy that had caused him to miss out on parenting time to which he was entitled, not any obstructive behavior on the mother’s behalf. The mother believed that the PC was capable of issuing a new parenting time schedule if the father complied with the PC’s request that he undergo a psychological evaluation. The lower court ruled, without holding a hearing, that there was not sufficient evidence to prove that the parenting time schedule needed to be altered, and ordered that the parties comply with the PC’s instruction, rejecting the father’s request to terminate the PC’s services.

On appeal, the Appellate Division objected to the trial court’s lack of involvement in the dispute between the parties.

If, as [the father] claimed, [the mother] was preventing him from exercising parenting time as per the MSA, then he was entitled to a remedy. If, as [the mother] claimed, [the father] failed to exercise his parenting time out of disinterest, then the court’s decision to not alter parenting time was appropriate. The court should have resolved that dispute. . . . The court has no authority to delegate its decision-making to a parenting coordinator. Further, a trial court has no authority to require parties to ‘abide by [the parenting coordinator’s] recommendations.”

The Appellate Division sent the dispute back to the trial court to reexamine the conflict and to issue a more detailed ruling which cites to facts and reasoning that guided the decision.

If you are in the midst of a complex dispute over parenting time or the division of custody of your own children before the New Jersey court system, seek out compassionate and dedicated legal counsel to walk you and your family through this process by contacting the Englewood family lawyers at Herbert & Weiss for a consultation, at (201) 500-2151.