Our children are the future: Creating a post-divorce parenting plan
Van Hilten de Vries van Ruitenbeek Advocaten & Mediators (HVR) is a law firm specialising in family law and general practice located in The Hague with a meeting point in Amsterdam as well.
When marriage turns out to be too difficult and divorce is the only solution, I tell my clients that the next biggest challenge is to make a fair and sustainable divorce covenant and, equally important, a parenting plan.
Divorce and children's rights
Whenever I sit with parents to make a parenting plan, I point out that this plan is, in fact, related to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which was created 25 years ago at the end of 1989.
From my experience, schooling and education are important issues in expat divorces, especially as children often have two or more nationalities and speak several languages at an early age.
Language, culture and therefore schooling, can easily become a major issue in a divorce situation.
However, I often also have to make clear that while access to education is, of course, a children’s right, it’s not the only one! Another extremely important issue is the right to a safe home - or, after the divorce; homes.
As a divorce lawyer and mediator I always try to make sure spouses think as caring parents when making a parenting plan, because the emotional wellbeing of the children is a condition sine qua non when it comes to a good future. Even the best education will fall short if daily life is merely a struggle to survive.
Most of the time, after a divorce, neither parent can afford to stay in the former marital dwelling, meaning that the focus is on creating two new homes. Parents need to realise that moving from their familiar neighbourhood - and living in two homes - is without a doubt already very stressful for children.
This is all the more reason to give children a voice when making an arrangement regarding the division of care, especially once they reach the age of 12, but often also earlier.
The right of the child to live with both parents or maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis should be a starting point.
Equal parenting is not 50/50
According to Dutch law, children are entitled to equal parenting, but equal parenting does not necessarily mean a 50/50 time split. I remember a couple that initially agreed on 50/50 care for their three teenage sons. This meant that, every Friday night, a big 4x4 was packed with three cupboards on wheels with all the children’s things such as books, laptops, school work and sports gear.
After several months, however, it turned out the boys were not happy with this situation at all, as they had no real place for themselves.
The parents then agreed that the boys would have their main residence at one address, and that they would see the other parent regularly for dinner and/or homework and sports, and once in a while over the weekend. This plan worked.
Of course, it is not always easy to make an arrangement that guarantees direct contact on a regular basis with the other parent. For expat children this can sometimes mean long stays with one parent during holidays, and regular Skype contact the rest of the time.
The reality of divorce
The goal should always remain minimising traumatic experiences as a consequence of divorce. From a broader perspective, the avoidance of potential trauma needs attention, especially as one in three marriages breaks down in the Netherlands, and other relationships are at an even higher risk.
In the western part of the Netherlands almost 50 per cent of families break up. And the track record of expats is no better. It is only recently that politicians seem to realise that they have a responsibility in this field too.
More legal support is needed
As family lawyers, we try to make politicians see the consequences of existing (and potential) laws and political choices that relate to children and divorce.
Firstly, we ask the government to increase the number of tools available for the protection of children in divorce cases. This is especially necessary in high-conflict divorces in which the children become the ultimate victims. Additionally we ask for more facilities enforced by laws.
There are many other potentially beneficial legal structures that can be introduced to support children after a divorce. These include:
› Mandatory mediation
Making a parenting plan is now a legal obligation in the Netherlands, however this obligation can be ignored by unwilling parents. Why not introduce mandatory mediation with the aim of drawing up a parenting plan after the divorce?
After all, this has proven to be a better instrument to define the children’s future after a divorce, especially when used at an early stage.
› Extend tax-deductible period on family home
As a consequence of the law that limits the tax deductible period for mortgage interest, the family home often cannot be maintained for more than two years by a single parent, jeopardising the children’s social situation from the start. Why not facilitate a longer period?
› Support with day care
Upcoming laws limiting spousal alimony will force mothers to start working full-time earlier - which would not be a problem except that support for day and after-school care is being cut simultaneously.
Why not offer free day care instead? This would reduce the number of young "key children" (who carry a house key to school so they can return alone afterwards) who are already suffering from the emotional consequences of divorce and feel as if they don’t have a home?
Our children are the future
Various international surveys over the last 10 years, including ones by UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, have concluded that, of all adolescents worldwide, Dutch teenagers are the happiest and most satisfied with their lives. This is good - let’s keep it that way.
Let us cherish our children and make it our responsibility to ensure that their happiness does not change dramatically as a consequence of countless traumatic experiences caused by divorce. The stability of our future society depends on it.
We ask politicians to stand up for children and for single parents and to protect the rights of children. After all, our children are our future!
Edith van Ruitenbeek is lawyer/mediator and partner of HVR. For more advice on divorce:
› Contact Edith directly
› Visit the HVR website
› Schedule a free 30-minute introductory interview in The Hague or Amsterdam