Parental Rights and Education Issues
Aside from home, health, and maintenance, one of the biggest parenting issues when raising children is their education. Following a divorce, legal and physical custodial rights do not necessarily dictate where a child will be educated or what role each parent will play in education, so this issue can become a source of dispute between the parties. A custodial agreement usually spells out certain rights and obligations between the parents, but practical realities can intervene, and it is important to understand the various moving pieces.
Physical and Legal Custody
In Virginia, parents have two types of custodial rights over their children. Legal custody means decision making authority over the child, including the manner and location of their education. Physical custody refers to the child’s actual daily care. In Virginia, public policy leans towards having both parents retain both physical and legal custody of the child, and it is rare that sole custody is awarded to one parent. In the rare cases where one parent has sole physical custody, the other parent often has custodial time.
Actual Rights vs. School Assumptions
Notwithstanding a court’s decision about custodial rights, the school district where a child attends has rules and processes that a parent should be aware of to make sure that they are able to exercise their rights. For example, the parent who first enrolls a child in a school district is the “enrolling parent” and that parent will receive relevant notices, have decision making authority, and generally exercise parental control because the school system will assume that the enrolling parent is acting with authority. Furthermore, while legal custodial rights cannot be interrupted, if the parents disagree over some aspect of a child’s education, without a court order to the contrary, school districts in Northern Virginia, including in Fairfax County and Prince William County, will ultimately defer to the parent with the majority of physical custody unless there is an explicit court order to the contrary.
What Happens When One Parent Moves?
A common source of dispute occurs when one parent relocates to a different county, and the parents can’t agree where the child should go to school. In these cases, the school districts will defer to a court order or give preference to the parent with the majority of physical custody, and the family court will look at the best interest of the child. A parent who is inconvenienced by having to drive a greater distance to participate in their child’s education will have to show an actual impact on the child rather than their own burden. In these situations, parents can consider mediating an adjustment to the custodial order that provides the distant parent with additional weekend or summer custody to make up for lost time during the school week.
With the pandemic imposing a dramatic impact on education, if custodial parents are in two different counties, there may be some serious dispute about where the child goes to school based on the safety plan in place by the school district. Some like Prince William County and Arlington County will be entirely virtual for the first quarter of the Fall 2020 school term while Fairfax County is offering hybrid or virtual options for students. While some exceptions apply for students with special needs, parents should be aware of these developments and consider the best interests of their children when making educational decisions for the Fall.
If you and the other parent of your child cannot agree on educational matters, it is important to be aware of your rights. Contact Reese Law for a consultation on your questions or concerns.
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