The Legal Status of Parent Coordinators in Massachusetts

Parent Coordinators are commonly used in child custody and parenting matters in Massachusetts to facilitate resolving disputes between parents on issues relating children of divorce and children born out of wedlock. The Parent Coordinator typically acts as a referee to rule on any disputes, or works more like a mediator to help the parents negotiate and resolve any dispute. Using Parent Coordinators can be an effective tool in assisting parents in avoiding lengthy litigation in the Probate and Family Court to resolve custody and parenting disputes.

On September 15, 2014, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on a case of first impression relating to Parent Coordinators, in the case of Bower v. Bournay-Bower. The issues at hand were whether the Probate and Family Court has authority to appoint a Parent Coordinator over the objection of one parent, and also whether the decision of the Parent Coordinator be binding upon the parents.

The Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged that Parent Coordinators play an important role in resolving disputes between parents. The SJC further stated that the Probate and Family Court can recommend or refer a Parent Coordinator in a specific case, but the authority of the Probate and Family Court is not limitless. By mandating that a Parent Coordinator be appointed to a case, the SJC held that such an appointment undermines due process and the rights of parent to seek relief through the courts and also obtain judicial review.

However, in no way does the SJC mean to discount the important role Parent Coordinators play in a custody or other child-related matter. The Court acknowledges that parties can by agreement engage a Parent Coordinator, and define the scope of the Parent Coordinator’s role, including binding the parties to any decisions made by the Parent Coordinator. Because of this importance, the SJC referred the issue of Parent Coordinators to the Probate and Family Court to review whether rules regarding Parent Coordinators should be promulgated.

Ultimately, the use of a Parent Coordinator, after Bower v. Bournay-Bower is still permissible; however, the appointment of a Parent Coordinator by the Probate and Family Court when one or both parents object to such an appointment is not permissible. Now it we will just have to wait and see what, if any, rules the Probate and Family Court promulgates regarding Parent Coordinators.

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