It’s about more than just money and property.
By 4th Circuit Judge John Guy
As every family law practitioner knows, divorcing couples spend a lot of time and money on valuations. Experts are retained to value businesses, vocational abilities and individual assets.
But too often, divorcing couples fail to consider the two most important familial assets: The post-divorce family dynamic and the future well-being of their children.
The dollar value of marital assets will not matter if the parents can’t create a safe, civil and respectful post-divorce coparenting relationship. Children need, and in the eyes of many are entitled to, an amicable, efficient and effective relationship between their parents.
Divorced parents don’t need to love each other, but they do need to respect one another and appreciate the impact on their children of their new, post-separation relationship. Our youth crisis centers are filled with children whose parents have failed in this regard.
Foremost for consideration is the nature and means of communication between the parents. The value in this cannot be overstated. The level of civility between divorced parents is the most important factor in a healthy coparenting relationship.
The parents must be able to consider and appreciate the circumstances and position of the other parent. They have to be able to express themselves in a calm and measured manner. They have to be willing to compromise, and often, forgive.
A violent, or even disrespectful, coparenting relationship produces stress and lasting harm to young children. In its most severe form this is known as toxic stress, which can lead to lifelong physical and emotional problems.
The animus between parents robs children of comfort and safety and a sense of security. Conversely, civil, patient and understanding communication between parents allows children to find a safe harbor at the home of each parent.
Divorcing parents think long and hard about the “parenting plan” for their children, which is to say, how much time (and what time) the children will spend with each parent. They consider what they believe is best for their children and what they believe their children desire.
They consider schedules, schools, extracurricular activities and finances. But the number and nature of overnights won’t matter if the parents can’t communicate civilly and respectfully.
The other undervalued, and often forgotten, asset of the divorcing couple is the family unit itself. It has long been noted that while divorce is the end of the marriage, it is not the end of the family.
The link between children and their biological parents remains forever. Parents go their separate ways, move on, and often remarry. But that core unit, those two adults and their biological children, must be recognized, appreciated and reconciled.
That’s not for the sake of the parents, but because it really matters to the development of the lives they together created.
Parents should give great thought to how their new relationship will exist in the real world.
Take, for example, their child’s extracurricular activities. Where will newly divorced mom and dad sit at the soccer game or dance recital? Are they even capable of attending the same event? Where should they sit relative to each other if they do attend the same event?
If the parents decide to sit at opposite ends of a soccer field and their child scores a goal, which parent should that child look to first? The one who is physically closer? The one who cares more? The one who brought them to the game? Neither?
Would it not be better for the child if the parents could bring themselves to sit relatively close – if not next to – each other? Wouldn’t it be healthier for the child if at the end of the event the parents were in the same place to greet and congratulate and celebrate with their child? How much is that worth to a child struggling to carry all the baggage associated with divorce and separation?
When family law attorneys and their clients set out to value marital assets, perhaps they should begin with those assets that are invaluable.
Fourth Judicial Circuit Judge John Guy was appointed to the bench in 2015 after 22 years in the State Attorney’s Office.