After a divorce, or the end of a romantic relationship, communication with your ex-partner and co-parent has to change. Old ways of communicating with your ex may be ineffective, inappropriate, or just plain painful. Now, you need to treat the person you once loved or were intimate with as a business partner, working together in the joint venture of raising your children.
Technology can help bridge the gap caused by hard feelings, help you manage the practical aspects of co-parenting, and keep you close to your children even during the other parent’s time. In fact, strategic use of the right technology can even give you an edge if your child custody case ends up in court, or back in court in the event of a modification.
Problem: What Is the Best Way to Communicate with a Combative Ex-spouse?
Contested child custody issues can strain your ability to communicate with your ex or hinder your communication altogether. However, even after your romantic relationship has subsided, you will need to communicate with your co-parent about everything from parenting time exchanges to holiday gifts. When one or both parents become combative, parents and family courts often turn to technology to help.
Answer: Custody-Related Messaging Apps
Our Family Wizard has been around for a while and has frequently been recommended, and sometimes required, by courts. The website and mobile app allow parents to communicate online with messages that push to your cell phone. Once a communication or event is added to the site, it is time stamped and can’t be edited or deleted. Your lawyer and other professionals can be granted access to Our Family Wizard communication logs. When disputes arise over who said what to whom, or when, there is an accurate record that can be exhibited in a child custody motion or otherwise presented to your parent-coordinator, family therapist, or the court. There is a fee for use of Our Family Wizard, but most parents consider the cost worthwhile. For parents who are unable to afford the annual subscription fee, there is a fee waiver available.
2houses is another web-based option that has an app that can be accessed on your mobile devices. 2houses allows parents to arrange schedules, record expenses, and exchange funds, as well as share information that is required to improve shared decision-making. Like Our Family Wizard, 2houses records communication between you and your ex-partner and the communications cannot be deleted. The app’s purpose is to streamline things for co-parents and keep families out of court, all the while providing a cohesive data source when litigation is the only option.
Warning 1: Preserve Text Messages
If the hostile messages have already begun, and you haven’t been using a separate communication platform, there are programs available to help preserve your text history in a way your lawyer can take to court. Each state has rules that control what evidence can be admitted. Frequently, screenshots of text messages from your phone do not meet those requirements. Instead, you may want to use a tool like Decipher TextMessage or iMazing for Apple or Droid Transfer for Android to document past text messages and send them to your lawyer.
Warning 2: Social Media Is Never Private
When things are going poorly between you and your ex-spouse, it can be tempting to turn to social media for help and support from friends and family. Co-parents frequently say damaging things on their Facebook, Twitter, or other social media profiles and expect that this is a safe space to rally support because their “co-parent” is blocked and the children use other platforms.
Social media posts are social, and they are never truly private. Someone in your circle, but removed from your immediate consideration, may share your posts or comments with your co-parent. Your co-parent can then subpoena the information directly from the social media company or compel you to produce copies of your social media profiles during the discovery process. Even if you delete the offensive content, it may still be available on the company servers, and there are still people that can testify that they saw the content you shared. In many jurisdictions, deleting electronic evidence is not only illegal, but can also be deemed criminal. If you need to vent about a frustrating co-parent, it is better to do it offline, and in a confidential manner with your lawyer, therapist, or physician.
Problem: How Do You Keep Track of the Kids’ Schedules in Two Homes?
After a divorce or separation, when you are tasked with managing one child’s schedule across two households, clear communication is critical. Many parents come to attorneys with stories about a child who was stranded after a sports practice because each parent thought it was the other parent’s responsibility to pick up the child. Disputes sometimes inadvertently arise, and timely information about school and medical appointments isn’t readily available. Parents can feel excluded from important school and medical decisions, even when it is an unintentional miscommunication. Technology to the rescue!
Answer: Shared Calendars
One of the easiest ways to keep everyone in the loop about your children’s appointments, school assignment deadlines, and extracurricular activity schedules is to set up a shared calendar with both parents. The shared calendar can even be shared with your child when he or she is old enough. The shared calendar can offer a central place for all child-related appointments and events. It can also include information about important emergency contacts and costs. Many shared calendars also allow you to assign events and tasks to different users, which allows parents to plan ahead for transportation and pick up.
There are a number of programs that offer shared calendars, from Google’s calendar app, which is free and you may already be using, to co-parenting-specific software like Moiety, 2houses, or Cozi. These shared calendar apps offer color-coded calendars that show each family member’s appointments. Many also allow you to share shopping and to-do lists; even photos and videos can be shared with other users.
Problem: How Do You Stay Connected to Kids During Extended Parenting Time?
When you’ve been the stay-at-home parent or primary caregiver for your children, you get used to hearing about the ups and downs of their day, and they get used to having a consistent outlet to share. Sometimes, even one school night apart can present challenges to staying up to date. Still, in most child custody cases, each parent must balance communications between the times when the children are with them and also when they are away. Visitation could span a weekend, a week, or even the whole summer.
Staying connected to your kids during times apart is a careful balance of availability and intrusion. Children should always be permitted to reach out to a parent when they want to talk, no matter how long it has been since your last exchange. But when the communications interfere with access time or when you go too far in monitoring or contacting your children while they are in the other parent’s care, it could be problematic for you later. When it comes to keeping in touch with your children, technology can be a double-edged sword. Still, many parents find social media and other communication apps to be a helpful way to stay connected.
Answer 1: Video Calls and Messaging Apps
Video calls can be used to stay connected with kids of any age, though younger children may need their parent’s help to get everything set up properly. Many parenting plans include electronic or virtual access provisions. If you are looking for an easy and free program to allow for video calling across different devices, WhatsApp may be a good choice. The app boasts “fast, simple, secure messaging and calling for free*, available on phones all over the world.” (Data charges may apply.) The messaging system offers many benefits: free voice and face-to-face calling, unlimited text messaging, the ability to transmit documents, and the ability to see if your message has been delivered and/or read. WhatsApp is available on your browser as well as your phone, for maximum convenience.
You and your kids can also sign up for WeChat from your phones. WeChat allows you to share “Moments” (the equivalent of a Facebook status update) and play games with your contacts. You can also send brief audio clips, share your location, and, of course, use emojis.
Warning: Too Much Is Not a Good Thing
It’s one thing if you have a regularly scheduled virtual visit with your kids, or to spend a few minutes “face to face” if they reach out to you. However, some parents take video calls, text messages, and other electronic communication too far. Your virtual contacts shouldn’t interfere with the other parent’s opportunities to act as an in-parent. Be open to setting a schedule for calls, or limiting their number or the length of virtual visits, to respect your kids’ time with their other parent. You should also keep in mind that both parents are likely to request and receive the same scope of virtual access—so if you feel that the amount of virtual access would be disruptive during your time, your co-parent will likely feel the same.
Answer 2: Social Media
Using technology to connect with older kids and teens often means meeting a child on his or her level, and on the platforms that he or she may use. One survey showed that as of Fall 2020, very few teenagers are opting for traditional social media networks like Facebook (2%) or Twitter (3%). Most Popular Social Networks of Teenagers in the United States from Fall 2012 to Fall 2020, Statista (2021). Instead, teens rely on newer, emerging social networks like Snapchat (34%) or TikTok (29%), which tend to rely heavily on videos instead of text. Your kids may also create a Tumblr account as an online visual blog using videos, photos, and animated GIFs. At the same time, one reason kids have turned away from Facebook, specifically, is that their parents can see what they are doing. Adult supervision of social media usage is critical. The best way to supervise your children’s online activities is to make sure you understand how the platforms work, that you have parental controls installed on their devices, and that you have consistent and established online guidelines in both homes.
Warning: Avoid Phone Tracking Apps
While the desire to stay connected with your kids and monitor whereabouts is normal, tracking a child’s location while he or she is not in your care can be problematic. Some parents use Apple’s “Find My Phone” feature or other phone tracking apps to monitor a child’s movements and location, which can include attendance at school and other activities. However, location tracking can be intrusive and misleading. When you are using these apps to track not only your child but the child’s travels while in the care of your ex, you risk damaging your credibility with the court, and the monitoring may even be deemed unlawful depending upon the rules in your jurisdiction. There are more transparent ways to know if your kids are making it to school on time or attending practice. While phone tracking apps and related location technologies serve a useful purpose, they can easily transition from a tool to a weapon.
Problem: How Do you Access a Child’s School Attendance and Medical Records?
Many families with shared decision-making responsibilities run into problems where access to information and to other professionals is concerned. Teachers, doctors, dentists, and therapists can sometimes be resistant to duplicating their efforts to communicate with both parents. In most states and in most cases, even when one parent has sole decision-making authority, both parents have the right to access relevant information, reports, and medical records related to their child. When relations are strained between parents, access to these important records can become a control issue and noncustodial parents often find themselves cut out of the loop. The good news is, in many school districts and medical offices, technology is once again making it easier to access your child’s important information.
Answer: Parent and Patient Portals
Most public and private schools now have online portals available for students and parents. These password-protected dashboards give parents access to report cards, assignments, class schedules, behavioral reports, and any special education services like individual education plans (IEPs) or progress reports. Regularly monitoring your children’s school portal can help you find out if he or she is struggling or skipping class. Proactively accessing this information also eliminates the need to rely on your co-parent to share information when he or she may be worried that failures or deficits will be used against them in court. School portals often include options to communicate with teachers and administrators directly, should your child need some additional support in one or both homes.
Doctors’ offices and other medical professionals also use confidential patient portals to centralize health information and make test results and aftercare instructions available online. If you and your co-parent have difficulty communicating about a child’s medical needs, or if you just need to confirm the dosage on your kid’s antibiotic, you can use the patient portal to retrieve important information directly from the treating professional. If you have trouble getting a doctor to give you access, your attorney should be able to smooth things over by providing proof that you are a legal parent.
When you have trust or communications issues, the best way to access your child’s important information is to go directly to the source.
Problem: What Is the Best Way to Divide Co-pays and Extracurricular Expenses?
Access to medical information creates one problem; sharing the out-of-pocket medical expenses and getting your child’s physicians paid is another. Child support orders are designed to intrinsically cover many child-related expenses without additional calculation—from housing to health insurance. However, child-related expenses often extend beyond that which is covered by child support, and parents frequently attempt to divide the “extras” and out-of-pocket expenses by formula. Sometimes the income-shares approach will create a highly specific division of expenses; for example, 68 percent for Parent 1 and 32 percent for Parent 2, or 17 percent for Parent 1 and 83 percent for Parent 2. Technology provides options that can not only make the math easier, but also streamline payments and even keep either parent from owing the other anything at the end of the day.
Answer: Expense Sharing Apps
If one parent pays a co-pay, deductible, or extracurricular cost, the nonpaying parent can use a cash transfer app like Zelle, Venmo, or PayPal to reimburse the other for his or her share of an allocated expense. All these cash apps allow person-to-person transfers with little to no cost. However, if the funds must be transferred immediately, there may be fees associated with the speed of transfer. Which app works best for you will depend on your financial institution and your comfort with third-party payment apps.
Expense-splitting apps like Settle-Up and Splitwise provide another level of sophistication. These apps let you input each parent’s percentage under your court order ahead of time. Then you can add expenses, upload your receipts, and organize them into types (such as ordinary healthcare, extraordinary medical expenses, extracurricular expenses, and child care costs). At the end of each month (or more or less frequently should you and your co-parent choose), the apps can reconcile each parent’s expenses and account for the manner in which expenses are shared to determine the payment required to reconcile the spending. Most apps are also integrated with cash transfer features so you can track the expense, documentation, accounting, and payments all in one place. Both the saved receipts and invoices, as well as the accounting, provide documentation of the expenses you’ve paid should you require documentation for your co-parent, your accountant, or the court.
Problem: How Can You Be Sure a Parent Is Sober?
Substance abuse and dependence can make it hard to feel comfortable when your child is out of sight and out of your care. When a parent has a history of alcohol abuse, he or she may be court-ordered to prove sobriety before or during parenting time. While drug screenings can often capture a longer period of time, blood alcohol content can rise and fall in just a few hours. Once again, technology can offer some answers to this challenging problem.
Answer: Portable Monitoring Devices
Personal alcohol monitoring systems like SoberLink or BACTracking can detect a user’s blood alcohol content using Breathalyzer testing (just like the police) and sync to a smartphone or computer to create an instant report that proves the testing parent’s sobriety or documented alcohol use. Data can be collected in a monthly report and shared with your attorney or the court to prove consistent sobriety during parenting times. Many apps also provide for real-time data share, so positive results can be monitored to ensure that the children are not left unsupervised or traveling in a car with a parent who is under the influence.
Technology doesn’t have an answer for all co-parenting problems that arise following a divorce or child custody case. However, many problems can be proactively addressed with the help of technology. When parents find creative ways to keep the peace, they also build positive momentum for future co-parenting. Before heading back to court for another expensive post-judgment motion, consider whether there is an app to improve communication and accountability that may make life easier for your kids and everyone involved, while also preserving your claims and evidence should future litigation be required.