Dividing visitation transportation responsibility

One phone call family law attorneys dread (at least those attorneys who provide clients their cell phone number) is the Friday or Sunday evening call when the other parent has failed to get the child to the visitation exchange at the required time and is now not answering his or her phone or responding to texts. Typically the client is waiting in a parking lot of a big box store or fast food restaurant, unsure of when–or even if–the other parent and child will be arriving. The anxiety, and the feeling that the other parent is late and uncommunicative to be spiteful or controlling, is often a bigger issue than the brief delay.

However it can be hard to bring a contempt action over a parent showing up late for a visitation exchange. There can be evidentiary problems in even proving the other parent was late. The other parent often has a reasonable-sounding excuse for showing up late–the child needed to stop; traffic was bad; the car had problems–and it can be difficult to prove the excuse is a lie. The family court is loath to spend docket time determining whether a parent was late for the exchange, and whether that parent had a justifiable excuse–especially when the parent showed up within a half hour of the expected time. Meanwhile the client is anxious with every visitation exchange and wonders why the attorney cannot resolve the problem.

Because of the problems with visitation exchanges in which the parties meet halfway, I often suggest agreements in which the party picking up the child goes to the other parent’s home. Each parent still handles half the transportation but, instead of handling half the transportation for both the pick-up and drop-off, each parent handles one round trip. This method works extremely well when the parties do not live very far apart. The parent picking up the child has every incentive to be on time, and to inform the other parent if he or she is running late. My experience is there are many fewer problems with this arrangement than with meeting halfway.

There are a few drawbacks with this transportation arrangement. This arrangement can be problematic when parents live more than a two hour drive away and one parent exercises weekend visitation. Typically the visiting parent will not be able to leave until after work on Friday and, if that parent does not leave until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., the parent and child may not get home until late Friday night–or even Saturday morning. Unless the visiting parent can arrange to leave work early on Friday and arrive at the custodial parent’s home by late afternoon, meeting halfway remains the better option.

There are also problems when one or both parties do not want the other coming to his or her home. In that circumstance the pick-ups and drop-offs can sometimes be done at school or day care. If the child is old enough, the party picking up can remain on the street in front of the house and the child can walk to the car. If those options won’t work or don’t alleviate the concern of parents coming to the other’s home, meeting halfway may be the only option.

One can include in the visitation transportation provision of custody orders that if a parent is running late to a visitation exchange, he or she will call the other parent and inform him or her [before South Carolina made texting while driving illegal, I would have the parent text rather than call]. This won’t prevent parents from being late to visitation exchanges but it will reduce the other parent’s anxiety if that parent shows up on time and the other parent and child are not there.

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