Q&A with Francine Gardikas and Tiffany Bentley, Leading Divorce Attorneys at Burns & Levinson

Francine Gardikas and Tiffany Bentley will be leading a free webinar, “Keeping Your Focus on Your Children During the Divorce Process” on August 3, 2020 from 12:00 noon to 12:45 p.m. ET. The webinar is part of an ongoing series sponsored by Burns & Levinson’s Divorce Law Monitor blog.

Q. Getting divorced can be hard on kids. What single piece of advice do you give your clients on how to best navigate these challenges?

Gardikas: Keep the lines of communication with your spouse open so that you can continue to provide what is best for your children, even during this most difficult time.

Q. What is the worst thing that parents can do when getting divorced?

Bentley: Speaking negatively about the other parent directly to the children or in their presence is extremely damaging. Children need to feel loved by both parents and they need to feel permitted to continue loving both of their parents.

Q. What should divorcing parents do differently depending on the age of their children?

Gardikas: With different aged children, parents need to be mindful as to how much time a child can and should be away from one parent. Younger children need more frequent touchpoints, while older kids, such as teenagers, can go as long as a week without the need to have in person contact.

Q. How is the COVID crisis affecting the decisions that parents are making if they decide to separate and divorce during the pandemic?

Bentley: Early in the pandemic, the Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court circulated and posted an “open letter” reiterating that existing orders and judgments remained in effect regarding parenting time and similar issues, and encouraging separated and divorced parents to work together to ensure ongoing meaningful contact between the children and both parents. Of course, there have been many situations where one parent feels the other is not appropriately social-distancing or may otherwise be putting the children at risk, and we have had to seek court intervention in some of those cases. There is a broad spectrum here. Will the court get involved if a parent disagrees with the other parent’s choice to hold an outdoor playdate or visit a playground? Probably not. Will the court get involved if a parent disagrees with the other parent’s plan to travel with the children by airplane to a location where COVID is surging? Perhaps.

It will be interesting to see what happens as school reopening plans are finalized, if and when separated or divorced parents may disagree regarding their children’s full or partial return to in-school learning. Even in intact families, this decision is difficult and hotly debated, with no clear “right” answer.

Q. Child custody agreements can be very confusing and challenging. How are shared custody and joint custody different? Please demystify some of this lingo for us.

Gardikas: There are two types of custody: legal and physical. Joint legal custody, where parents decide major life decisions for their children, such as medical, education and religious decisions, requires the ability for parents to communicate, discuss and decide on what is best for their children. Physical custody is where the children physically reside and where they lay their heads to sleep. We often use the term shared physical custody to describe a parenting plan that provides quality time for each parent.

Q. Can you explain the difference between co-parenting and parallel parenting, and how parenting plans are and should be developed?

Bentley: In co-parenting, the parties are committed to working together in the best interests of the children. They make major decisions together, and they send clear, consistent messages to the children. They support each other in supporting the children, cooperating to adjust schedules or otherwise resolve conflicts as they arise. On the other hand, in parallel parenting, each party is really making his or her own decisions for the children during his or her respective time with them, without significant consultation or coordination with the other party.

Co-parenting should be the goal for most separated or divorced parents. It certainly isn’t easy, and there are some situations – including cases with domestic violence issues – where it simply cannot work. But in most cases, with real effort from both sides and a focused commitment on the children, it is possible.

Q. What is your advice for breaking the news to your kids in the most compassionate and effective way?

Gardikas: Ideally, both parents would agree to inform their children together. Telling the children together shows that there is a united front and neither parent is to blame for the major life change. However, even before the parents tell the children, it is important for parties to consult with professionals, such as a child therapist, the child’s pediatrician or even their own therapist to help them with word choice. Both parents should be prepared to answer their children’s questions, some of them which will be difficult.

Q. Any last thoughts you want to share?

Bentley: If you have children, the reality is that even after a separation or divorce you will have an ongoing connection to and relationship with your ex-spouse. There will be birthdays, dance recitals, graduations, and weddings among many other events. With the right focus on what matters most, closing the chapter on your marriage and opening a new chapter as effective co-parents will ensure your children’s ongoing wellbeing and happiness. It is not easy, but it can be done.

Francine Gardikas and Tiffany Bentley are partners in the Private Client Group at the law firm of Burns & Levinson in Boston. Both attorneys concentrate their practice on probate and family court litigation in Massachusetts and have many years of experience helping clients through challenging family law matters with a specialty in handling high net worth divorce and high conflict custody/parenting disputes. They can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].