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Massachusetts Parenting Coordinator: Standing Order 1-17 [Part 2 of 3]

Following Part I in this three-part series on the Probate and Family Court’s newly released Standing Order 1-17, this post discusses the 2014 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision (“SJC”) that first suggested the creation of a rule pertaining to the appointment of parenting coordinators.

In Bower v. Bournay-Bower, the parties were divorced parents with four children. Both mother and father filed complaint for contempts alleging that the other party violated their divorce judgment. Father’s complaint requested that mother participate in parenting coordination and be bound by decisions of the parenting coordinator. The judge ordered that the parties utilize a parenting coordinator despite objections by mother. Further, the order granted the parenting coordinator binding decision making authority over matters of custody and visitation and contained no restrictions on the coordinator’s ability to make structural changes to the parenting plan. A judgment later entered incorporating said order and mother appealed. The SJC transferred the case on its own motion.

The main issues addressed by the SJC were:

  1.  Did the Court have the authority to appoint a parenting coordinator without the consent of both parties; and
  2. What are the limits a parenting coordinator’s authority?

In regards to the first issue, the SJC noted that although parenting coordinators were heavily utilized in Massachusetts, there was no rule or statute governing their authority. Despite same, the SJC stated that a judge has the inherent authority to appoint a parenting coordinator in order to conserve judicial resources, aid in the Court’s ability to decide cases, and/or ensure the best interests of the child are satisfied. The SJC stated, however, that this authority was not unlimited and cannot be used to undermine the constitutional rights of parties. According to the SJC, the lower court judge exceeded the scope of authority by granting the parenting coordinator binding decision making authority. Specifically, this authority served to prevent a party from seeking recourse of a wrongdoing under the law because the parties were required to submit any dispute to the parenting coordinator rather than the judge. Since individuals have a constitutional right to access the Courts, the powers given to the parenting coordinator cannot exceed the authority of the judge.

Stay tuned for Part III in this three-part series for a further look at the SJC’s decision and whether the how the new Standing Order implements the Bower v. Bournay-Bower decision. In the meantime, if you have questions regarding the use of a parenting coordinator, reach out to a Massachusetts divorce attorney today.