–by Sam Darling, Divorce Attorney in Everett, WA
Most parents do not know what they may or may not say to their children during a divorce. In fact, many parents don’t even realize courts consider certain topics of conversation off limits. Worse, in Washington, and likely most other states, the law describes these taboo topics of conversation in nebulous terms, such as “abusive use of conflict” or “putting the kids in the middle.”
Judges sometimes try to clarify by ordering parties to “not discuss the divorce case with the children”. But that order presents practical difficulties. For example, the parents need to tell the children where the parenting plan or custody order requires the kids to be on certain days. Parents MUST talk to the children about aspects of the divorce at some point, regardless whether the judge says it’s okay.
Fear not, this article provides a set of guidelines on what you can say to your kids. Please keep in mind, there is no official set of rules on this subject, and lawyers and judges routinely debate these points. But in our firm’s experience, judges typically agree with the following:
Guidelines for Parent-Child Communication
Rule 1) Okay to Inform of Schedule; Not Okay to Inform of Disputes. Parents can and should communicate the parenting schedule and upcoming changes to their children, but should not inform the children of any parent-parent disagreements.
Rule 2) Okay to Encourage Kids to Speak-up; Not Okay to Ask Kids to Choose. Generally, parents can and should encourage children to communicate their views. This is especially important for older children, whose expressed views are often the best measure of a parent-child bond and source of information regarding parenting concerns. But parents should not ask the children who they want to live with, ask the children to take a side on a custody-related issue, or coach them on what to tell others. If someone needs to ask the children for their opinion on a custody-related issue, that person should usually be a guardian ad litem, not a parent.
Rule 3) No Interrogating. Parents can ask their children general questions about their time with the other parent, but should not ask specific questions with the intent of using the child as a “spy” to gather un-volunteered information.
Rule 4) No Badmouthing. Parents should not speak negatively about each other or allow others to do so within the children’s presence.
Again, our firm wants to emphasize that the term “rule” is meant loosely. These are not codified legal principals, and not everyone agrees with them.
Our firm’s hope is that this article will reduce some of the anxiety and acrimony many divorce litigants experience during custody disputes.
For more articles pertaining to divorce and other legal topics, we encourage you explore the resources tab of our firm’s website by clicking here.