Co-parenting can be difficult, especially in the days, weeks, months, and even years immediately following a separation and divorce. For most parents, you may have to relearn what sharing the parenting responsibilities looks like and adjust to the way the other parent is implementing those duties now that you are in two separate households.
The good news is that while there is no “Golden Rule” for co-parenting, most well-thought out custody agreements and court orders, even temporary ones, contain “rules” designed to help both parents facilitate successful co-parenting around the basics. Every family is different, but when it comes to custody cases in South Carolina, more often than not, there are standard, child-related provisions and restraints that are included in every agreement or order. Some of these standards include:
- Neither parent shall disparage the other in the presence of the children;
- Neither parent shall expose the children to immoral or illegal conduct;
- Neither parent shall expose the children to the excessive use of alcohol, illegal drugs, or the abuse of prescription drugs;
- Neither parent shall discuss the litigation with the children;
- Neither parent shall use the children as a means of communicating with the other parent; and the like.
Depending on the circumstances, there may even be a provision that addresses handling a parent’s new potential romantic companion. If you are still married, most judges will generally restrain either party from exposing the children to a new romantic partner. Even after a divorce, there may be a restraint against exposing the children to a new romantic partner on an overnight basis for a given time frame or based on other contingencies. If these issues need to be addressed specifically, it is important to talk with your attorney about the best way to incorporate them in your custody agreement. It is easier to address certain behavior when you can refer to a provision in the order that is being violated. The court provides tools like Custody Orders to help parents adjust to the new normal of co-parenting, and thus each Agreement and Order can and should be as unique as the family it pertains to.
At the end of the day, the reality is that both parents are free to date – whether separated or divorced. However, just because you can doesn’t mean you should as the decision to do so can have severe ramifications. For example, if there is a provision in your agreement or order pertaining to romantic companions and one party violates that order, he or she could be held in contempt of court. In South Carolina, family court has the ability to punish contempt by a sentence of up to 1 year in jail, up to 300 hours of community service, up to a $1,500 fine, or any combination thereof. So, before you make plans to introduce your new significant other to your kids on an overnight vacation – you might want to check your Custody Order first.
If your Agreement or Order does not address the issue of dating and exposing the children to dating partners, it doesn’t mean the issue might not still come up. It is important to remember that whenever Judges are considering children in family law cases, the court will always look for what is in the best interests of the minor children. While the choice to expose your children to a romantic companion is ultimately a parenting decision, exercising poor parenting, even if your Custody Order doesn’t specifically address it, could give grounds to modify that Order or Agreement. For instance, if one parent has introduced their children to a new romantic companion, that may not be a cause for concern or a change in custody; but, if that new romantic companion has a criminal record or is using illegal drugs in the home, there may be grounds to modify the Custody agreement to further address these specific matters.
Outside of child custody issues, dating while going through a separation or divorce can impact equitable division and/or spousal support. Because South Carolina does not recognize “legal separation” like other states may, separating alone does not affect your marital status. Until the time you are legally divorced in South Carolina, you are still considered legally married. Why does that matter? For starters, in South Carolina, adultery is an absolute bar to alimony. That means if a party is found at fault, they most likely will not receive a dime in spousal support. Additionally, even if adultery was not the basis for divorce, a judge may consider the marital misconduct when it comes time to divide the marital property. For example, if your spouse was utilizing marital funds to take their romantic companion on lavish vacations, the judge may rule that he or she negatively affected the economic value of the marriage and may use that amount to deviate from a 50/50 split of marital property.
When it comes to dating after divorce, there is one simple rule I always tell my clients – Treat Others the Way That You Would Want To Be Treated (it’s called the “Golden Rule” for a reason). This is especially applicable when there are children involved. Co-parenting might be tough, but having the opportunity to work side by side with your co-parent to raise happy, healthy children – who are lucky enough to have the love and support of both parents – is absolutely priceless.