New Standing Order about Parent Education Course from the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court
by Matthew Solomon, Esq.
On April 11, 2016, Chief Justice Angela M. Ordoñez signed Standing Order 2-16, Parent Education Program Attendance. The new Order, which takes effect on May 1, 2016, makes some significant changes to the already existing rule that requires divorcing parents of minor children (children under 18 years old) to attend a Parent Education Program. There are Parenting Programs located in every county of Massachusetts. The Program consists of two 2 ½ hour long classes, which most often begin sometime after 5:00 p.m. (some programs have morning classes). The parties may not attend the same class and each party is responsible for paying $80 for the class fee.
The most important change that the new Order makes is that parties are now required to register with an approved program within thirty days of service of the original divorce complaint. This is a huge change from before, where there was no such time limit requirement of the parties. Prior to Standing Order 2-16, parties were required to attend and provide proof of completion in a program before the court would grant a divorce judgment. This would often mean that divorces were actually delayed because one or both of the parties had not fulfilled this obligation. In other words, this new onus on the parties may help expedite the entire process. A couple of things to note related to the new 30 day requirement: (1) Once a party is registered for a program, she/he must file an Affidavit Confirming Registration at Parent Education Program with the court; and (2) parties have to file their Certificate of Attendance with the Court no later than thirty days after finishing the program.
Similar to before, parties do have the option to petition the court for a waiver so that they do not have to attend a parent education program. This is done by filing a Motion to Waive Attendance at a Parent Education Program. The party must include the reason(s) why they cannot attend a program. The Order states that the court will grant the waiver “upon a demonstrable showing of: chronic and severe violence which negates safe parental communication; language barriers; institutionalization or other unavailability of a party; or where justice otherwise indicates.” The last bit of language does appear to allow for a party to include a reason not specifically listed, such as the party serving in the military or the fact that the child of the parties’ is close to being eighteen years of age.
If the Court decides to deny the Motion to Waive Attendance, it can permit a party to watch a five-hour DVD or online program. The cost to each party for the DVD option is also $80. The multimedia alternative is interactive and will provide the participant with a Certificate at the completion of the viewing. A party who is unable to attend in person a Parent Education Program can file a Motion to Permit Completion of Parent Education Program via DVD. As with the Motion to Waive Attendance, the party must include the reason(s) why they cannot attend and must make a demonstrable showing of such reason. The Order specifically lists the following reasons that can be included in the waiver, “significant health or financial issues, significant geographic and transportation issues, or other significant barriers to in person participation; or where justice otherwise indicates.”
The Order also provides some guidance as to what can and cannot be done procedurally with regard to the scheduling of certain court dates. An uncontested divorce hearing under Chapter 208, section 1A can be scheduled if both parties file separate affidavits that confirm that they have registered in a program and if both parties actually will have completed the program prior to the hearing date. The same holds true for a Pre-Trial Conference – the parenting course must be completed and certificates of completion provided at or before the Pre-Trial Conference. As before, the Court will not hold a Trial until the Court receives the Certificates of Attendance from each party. It appears that former practice by some judges – to permit parties to complete the course after a trial, but not issue judgments until the course is completed is not longer a possibility.