Most divorces begin with one spouse or the other telling the kids, “your daddy doesn’t want to be with you” or “mommy took all my money so I can’t buy you a birthday present” or some other such abhorrent example of harmful behavior. The other parent calls me and says, “do something! He can’t say that can he?” For one reason or another I often hear “Help! My Ex is a Jerk.”
Courts Can’t Make Exes Play Nice
There is no legal mechanism for making one parent be nice to another or even to be a good parent, as if we could agree on what that means. The law can intervene clumsily — sometimes for better, often for worse — when a child is being, or about to be, harmed. But that’s a limited and unattractive remedy.
Courts Can Order Certain Behaviors . . .
The court can set rules; we do it all the time. No “badmouthing,” or “alienation of affection” or something more specific like, “no references to dad’s bankruptcy,” “no talking to the kids about the divorce,” or “no use of alcohol during parenting time.”
. . . But They Can’t Easily Enforce Them
But there is no good mechanism for enforcing such rules.
If one parent can demonstrate that the other parent violated the rules — and that is hard enough — then we can go to court for a remedy. But invariably, it becomes a pissing contest. If the aggrieved parent “wins” the pissing contest, then the other parent’s parenting time can be reduced or made “supervised-only.”
If a parent violates a specific court order and that violation can be proven, a parent can be held in contempt and fined or jailed, but that is uncommon and also not really helpful. A contempt finding requires a minimum of two, likely three, court appearances that you have to pay for, too!
Alternately, if the police get involved, the matter can quickly become an intractable “CHiPs” (Child Protection) case.
I can do a lot to make one spouse look better and the other look worse.
For instance, I can file Harassment Restraining Orders and Orders for Protection to keep the offending parent away and bloody his or her image. I can also file Motions to Modify Parenting Time or Contempt Motions, either of which could be accompanied by lengthy, inflammatory affidavits itemizing the other guy’s bad behavior. I can even hire an investigator to interview people who know the ex and get dirt to include in the motion papers. This will make the other parent spend lots of money and drag him or her through the mud.
But that approach will also cost my client a lot of money that should have gone to the kids’ care and just hurt both parents’ ability to be good parents.
What’s Left? My Ex is Still a Jerk!
So, I know your ex is being a jerk and lying about you to the kids. I’ll call his or her attorney and tell the attorney to tell the client to knock it off. But if both of you can’t behave for the sake of the kids, the court can’t make you.
Finally, document everything. Buy a cheap calendar with big boxes for each day and write down what you know or have heard the other spouse said. If you have specifics that rise to the level of harming the child, a Motion to Limit Parenting Time or to force the other parent to go to anger management or a parenting class is an option.
But mostly be a good parent yourself. Your kids need you to be loving and supportive, especially if the other parent isn’t.