parent education program

“Whaddya mean, I have to take a class!?”

As a family law attorney, I’m often met with surprise (even outrage!) when I tell my clients that they’re required to participate in a Parent Education Program in connection with their Massachusetts divorce. People always say that it’s so much easier to get married than it is to get divorced, and that’s not entirely without merit.

While everyone knows that divorce is a costly process, both financially and emotionally, litigants too often become so focused on their own pain that they lose sight of the emotional toll the process can put on their children. Recently there have been some important changes to the Parent Education Program.

Since 1994, Massachusetts has required attendance and participation in a Parent Education Program to help parents understand and address the emotional challenges their children face in connection with certain family law matters. The program is available in most counties throughout the Commonwealth and is generally offered in one or two sessions. It totals approximately 6 hours in length. The program costs $80, and under certain conditions that number can be greatly reduced.

Until recently, Probate and Family Court Standing Order 4-08 (in effect since April of 2011) governed the program. Attendance and participation in an approved program was mandatory in divorces unless waived by the Court. Parties to certain other family law matters involving minor children could also be ordered to attend. Parties were to register for the program within 60 days of service of the complaint. The program vendors were to ensure that parties to an action do not attend the same session of any program.

Absent Court permission, no pretrial conference or trial was be held without the Court having received a certificate of attendance for each party. While an uncontested divorce hearing could be scheduled, the divorce would not be processed until both parties completed the program prior to the hearing. Similarly, a pretrial conference could be scheduled so long as the parties completed the program prior to the conference. The court was vested with the power to issue sanctions to a party for failure to register within sixty days of service of the underlying complaint. The plaintiff was to serve upon the defendant a pamphlet listing Court-approved programs.

Effective May 1, 2016, Standing Order 4-08 will be replaced with Standing Order 2-16. Like its predecessor, 2-16 also requires attendance and participation in an approved Parent Education Program in divorce actions involving minor children. It also gives the Court discretion to require parties in paternity actions, “complaints for modification or contempt, or in any other case involving parenting time, custody, or support of minor children” to attend the program. Sanctions may issue for failure to register or complete a program, and there are specific requirements for the scheduling of certain hearings absent proof of program completion.

If you’re representing yourself in a divorce as a “pro se litigant,” be sure you familiarize yourself with the new rule. Here are some major differences between 2-16 amd 4-08:

  1.  The time standards are even more strict than before: Now, all parties to a divorce involving minor children are required to register for an approved program within thirty days of service of the original complaint.
  2. Other parties ordered to attend a parent education program must register within thirty days of the order. When registering, participants now have to complete and file an “Affidavit Confirming Registration at Parent Education Program.”
  3. Upon completion of the Program, the parties are required to file their Certificates of Attendance with the Court within thirty days.
  4. While the in-person attendees must still complete Court-approved programs, a party seeking to waive in-person attendance must file a “Motion to Waive Attendance at a Parent Education Program” with notice to the other party. The motion must set forth the reason(s) the moving party is unable to attend in person. The Court may elect to deny the motion and instead authorize the use of a five-hour DVD or online program entitled KidCare for Co-Parents: An Educational Program for Divorcing Families to satisfy the program requirement.

It may seem to some to be a form of social engineering for a state to compel parents to attend a class to learn how to parent. Whether litigants like it or not, the the adoption of 2-16 makes clear that the Parent Education Program is here to stay in Massachusetts.

Perhaps it’s anecdotal, but in my many years of practice, I can count on one hand the number of clients who claim they learned nothing from the program. As a father of three, I believe that any time spent for the betterment of our children’s lives is time well-spent.

My very best to you and yours,
Ron