One of single moms’ most common frustrations — and by frustrations, I mean ENRAGEMENTS — is dads who don’t stick to visitation schedules. This might mean they fail to show up for scheduled visits, cancel at the last minute — or show up unannounced, or ask for last-minute visits, messing up your life and plans.
Corrie Sirkin, a family law attorney, mediator, and divorced mom from Manassas, Va., says she frequently deals with fathers who show up late or simply don’t show up at all.
“As a single mom myself, I know how frustrating these issues can be,” Sirkin says. “We have to continue to put our children first and foremost and try to make their lives as conflict free as possible.”
So, what do you do when there is a change in visitation?
- Last-minute visitation changes: How to handle
- What to do if a parent is late for visitation
- Visitation schedule manipulation: What to do
- Tips for how to make the visitation schedule work
- What to do if you don't have a visitation agreement
Last-minute visitation changes: How to handle
There are plenty of good, common reasons for last-minute visitation change: a medical emergency, parents who agree to be flexible with each other regarding work schedules, or other mutually respected explanations. However, mothers often complain that fathers keep canceling visits, and dads often say that primary-custody moms deny them visits.
Parent cancels visits
In a solid co-parenting relationship, if one parent needs some backup, they may be able to ask the other parent if they can step in and help, and/or switch up the schedule.
However, many co-parents have too contentious of a relationship, and one parent may just not show up — or cancels the visit and refuses to see the child. Alternatively, the custodial parent may cancel the visit, prohibiting the other parent from using their visitation time.
In either case, the advice is to document the cancellation. This can be useful if you choose to pursue your custody case in court.
The real fall-out in these situations is for the kids, who are caught in the middle of their parents’ dispute. Kids can feel confused about their schedule, hurt and abandoned by the non-custodial parent (regardless of who is at fault for the missed visit), and otherwise not benefit from two parents who love and are committed to them.
Dr. Sarah Kendrick, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Thriveworks in San Francisco, says frequent schedule changes can be difficult for the child, since children need some level of stability. However, the best approach is to speak to children in ways they’ll understand — and don’t throw your ex under the bus.
“You’re only in control of how you react,” Kendrick says. “Choose to react in the best way that you can, at least for your kids. Simply tell them there is a change in the schedule and the new schedule for now looks like X.”
Parent doesn’t show for visitation
Sirkin says if a parent regularly doesn’t show up, the court can order that both parents use a co-parenting app that uses location services on iPhone or Android and has check-ins to prove whether someone is on time.
Once you have documentation of the issue, you can ask the court to modify the parenting time and child support orders to reflect actual parenting time and increase child support.
“Sometimes fathers will request more parenting time simply to reduce their child support obligation rather than really wanting to spend more time with their children,” Sirkin says.
She says even if the father isn’t purposely blowing off visits — for example, if he’s absent minded or irresponsible — he’s still causing problems for the mother, who is relying on a consistent schedule and has to make alternate arrangements when he doesn’t show up.
“If someone consistently doesn't show up, you can also ask the court to change the agreement so he is responsible for the costs of a babysitter or similar childcare costs,” Sirkin says.
Late for visitation: How to handle
Ultimately, it is not your responsibility to teach him how to be a good dad or manipulate him into showing up. He is an adult, a parent, and that is his responsibility. But see what you can do to facilitate visits, even if it means doing more than you already are (which is no doubt a lot).
Parent late for visitation
When the other parent is late for visitation, Sirkin says you should send a message to the parent stating:
“It is now 6:30 P.M., you have not arrived yet. When are you going to arrive?”
She recommends keeping a paper calendar specifically for parenting time that documents cancellations or late arrivals, including when you were notified.
October 1: 6:30 P.M. scheduled time, arrived at 7:14 P.M., notified at 7:05 P.M.
October 15: no show no call
Visitation schedule manipulation: What to do
If your ex doesn’t respect the schedule you’ve put into place and shows up at will, there are steps you can take — sometimes uncomfortable ones — to ensure he plays by the rules.
Kendrick recommends first trying to communicate your concerns and needs to your ex, without involving the courts.
If that doesn’t work? This is what you should do:
Parent shows up unannounced
If he shows up on, say, Saturday evening and asks to take the kids for ice cream, even though his visit is not until Wednesday, answer the door. Try not to let the kids see, but accept that they might. Tell him that this is the last time you are opening the door for a time that is outside of his visitation.
Let him leave. The end. See ya Wednesday!
If he doesn’t leave?
Be prepared to call the police. Then call your lawyer — or find one via a friend.
I do not say that lightly. Early in my divorce, I had to call the police. I think there are lots of times people call the police during divorces that are unwarranted. Just because you’re really angry doesn’t mean that the cops need to be called.
However, sometimes the other party just doesn’t understand that because he used to live in the house that is now yours, that he can’t just be there when he wants — and will not leave your apartment. Or, just because children with whom he shares joint custody live in a building, that he isn’t allowed to have keys to that building. In my case, I couldn’t make the other person understand those basic concepts. But a couple of giant, burly officers’ presence did make him understand.
So: Be prepared to call the police, and file a report.
If you threaten to call the police, then you must call the police. He already doesn’t respect you. Empty threats will make that worse.
If things get to this point, then you do need to document this unstable behavior.
Police and courts will likely escalate things, at least temporarily. But they can and do get better. In my case, things got much, much better. But it took outside agencies to impose the rules. It is ugly and embarrassing. For me, a low point. But it had to happen.
Sirkin says if the other parent is not dangerous and circumstances allow, let the children speak with them on the porch or in the yard.
“Advise him that you have plans and that you will need to leave with the children by a set time, and then leave,” she says.
Ex constantly changing visitation schedule
Occasional and justified visitation change requests are to be expected — for example, if your ex wants to take your kids to visit an in-town relative or has to cancel a visit for a doctor's appointment.
However, if you’re dealing with an ex who is constantly canceling or trying to reschedule visits, you may need to get the courts involved.
Here’s what to do:
- Document everything. Keep a calendar and note all the times he is late, doesn’t show, cancels less than 3 days in advance, or cancels for reasons that are not reasonable — he has a date, is tired, not in the mood, had a fight with his boss, wants to go out, has a friend visiting. Our Family Wizard is the most popular, and most-often court-ordered co-parenting app, in which you can share calendars and document communication and missed or late visits.
- Go to court and get his visitations reduced. Bring your documentation, explain the effects this has on the kids and your own life, and ask the judge to reduce the number of times each week or month you have to be disappointed and your life upturned.
- You may need to call your lawyer — or find one via a friend. Online legal services are also affordable ways lots of people can get quality advice.
- Make him work for visitation: If he wants to see his kids, it can work to make him fight for it (as it stands, he takes visits for granted. Switch it up). It might seem counterintuitive, or passive-aggressive, but as it stands, he takes his time with the kids for granted, and approaches it with a sense of entitlement. Change that up. I tried this, and it worked.
- Be open to or even ask the judge for therapeutic visits. This means the court orders the dad, the kids, and maybe even you go to therapy.
How to make the visitation schedule work
If the non-custodial parent is often not showing up for visitation, sees the kids inconsistently, cancels last minute, or shows up unannounced, this is what you do:
1. Document your visitation schedule
Make sure you have a visitation schedule, and have it authorized through family court. Even if you were never married, you need to get this legally formalized.
Pull it out, make a copy, hand it to him, and tell him that that is the schedule. If he wants to change it, he is welcome to go to court and have it amended. Be polite, but firm. Say: “It is best for everyone if we all stick to a schedule. If it goes well for six months, we can start to be flexible when we need to be.”
Give him the benefit of doubt. Remember: You are changing the dynamic. Change is hard. He thought he could control you, but you are letting him know he can’t. He won’t like this. Give him an opportunity to step in line.
2. Examine the situation
Get honest with yourself: Do you contribute to the situation? You and I might make sure we see our kids, no matter what asshole tries to get involved. But, ask yourself:
- Do you help create drama at pick-up or drop-off that might discourage your ex from showing up?
- Do you try to micro-manage his time with the kids, creating a situation in which it’s very stressful for him to parent?
- Do you otherwise not support him in his parenting? Remember, especially if you have the kids the majority of the time, it can be really hard for even the best-intentioned dads to find a parenting groove, and confidence.
3. Consider changing the visitation schedule
- While it may not be fair or ideal, one parent may just not be up for the current schedule, and the other parent and the kids deserve consistency
- Sometimes, a parent struggles with mental health or addiction issues and needs some support before they can get back to a regular visitation schedule
- Occasionally, a parent is unsafe with the kids
- Often, a parent’s work schedule prohibits them from maintaining the same schedule, or a regular schedule, and requests some flexibility. However, it can be argued that parenting time is a responsibility and the parent should be required to arrange for child care should work conflict arise.
What to do if you don’t have a visitation agreement?
Go to family court this week, and request a hearing to get one. I also recommend hiring an attorney if you can at all afford one. A DIY online divorce service can be a great, affordable tool to get you the documents and advice you need — whether you were married or not.
You are very vulnerable without a custody and visitation agreement, regardless of whether you were married to your kids’ ex, live in the same state or country, whether you seek/get child support, whether or not he ever sees those kids.
Caveats: OK, maybe you have one of those Gweneth Paltrow dreamy divorces where you both blow in and out of each other’s homes unprompted, are BFFs with the other’s new significant other, and vacation together with your collective broods to the Maldives. Yay you.
This post is for everyone else.
Dads, if you don’t follow the visitation schedule, this is why this is totally, absolutely unacceptable:
- Your co-parent is not a 24-hour bodega. She and your kids are entitled to a schedule, the ability to plan, and to count on a routine.
- Parenting is not optional. You have a responsibility to your kids, and blowing them off is irresponsible, unethical, and just generally crappy.
- It breaks your children’s hearts when you don’t show. They will remember.
- Being lackadaisical about seeing your children sets a horrible example for your kids, and any other children in your life (e.g., your new girlfriend’s kids, or children you now have with another woman).
- Even last-minute cancellations are horrible. This lets down your children, and shows a total lack of respect for their mother, who is doing the majority of your work in raising them. You are 50 percent responsible for your kids. Every minute more than 50 percent that their mother takes is a favor to you, since you cannot or will not step up. Blowing off your time with your kids is so disrespectful of this service she is already providing for you. When you don’t show up, that means that she has to cancel her plans — including a quiet evening alone with a nice, uninterrupted meal, her shows, and the dog by her side. Or, a date, because she is an adult and she is no longer your wife or girlfriend. Or a workout, or work. Her time is valuable, and you are messing with it and that is wrong.
Question for you, dude: Are you trying to control your kid’s mom by creating chaos in her schedule? Are you jealous of her new man, or otherwise trying to punish her?
- Everyone needs a schedule. Kids thrive on schedules. Moms need schedules so they can organize their lives. You need a schedule. Dude, you need a schedule. I understand that your work may be unpredictable and harried. But work with your kids’ mom. She probably wants you to be involved.
- If you do have to miss a visit, IMMEDIATELY offer to reschedule. YOU suggest the new time. Your ex is not your secretary. Say: “I’m really sorry but work called me in this weekend and I can’t see the kids. What do you say that I take them Wednesday through Friday instead? Or, is there another time that works for you?” That shows her that you are serious about your children, that you recognize the value of your time with them — and the impact of missing a visit.
How about you? Does your ex do this? DID he do it? How did you manage it?
Ultimately, it is not your responsibility to teach him how to be a good dad or manipulate him into showing up. He is an adult, a parent, and that is his responsibility. But see what you can do to facilitate visits, even if it means doing more than you already are (which is no doubt a lot). And document everything.
If the non-custodial parent fails to see the kids consistently or cancels last minute, this is what you do: Make sure you have a visitation schedule, and have it authorized through family court.