In this blog Family Law in Partnership director James Pirrie examines the issues which older children can face when their parents divorce.
Children and the legal system
Perhaps 10% of divorcing couples become stuck over arrangements for their minor children, often moving towards mediation or the increasingly over-stretched courts to find their solutions. Specialist family lawyers, like those at my firm Family Law in Partnership, can sign-post other less-conflicted couples towards organisations that will help them to steer their children safely through the divorce or separation.
The challenges for older children
But what happens if the children are older? The growth of the grey divorce or silver separation has given rise to a sharp increase in the numbers of young adults seeing their parents separate. Embedded into 1970s culture was “staying together for the sake of the kids”. This in turn spawned the idea that adult children would somehow manage the divorce or separation of their parents better. Our experience at Family Law in Partnership is, however, quite different:
- Older children are often faced with a bewildering challenge to their identity when their parents split up. Assuming that they were part of a ‘rock-solid’ intact family, they are thrust into a place where they need to reappraise themselves, re-think their future – and perhaps their past too: “at what point did my parents’ partnership actually end?”
- Some will watch or even be involved as their parents, fearful of their own future security, vie for shares in the family assets. They may wonder “what about me?”
- They may well experience a feeling of statelessness as the family home is sold and may suffer reduced parental support as their parents struggle to map out their own independent futures.
This may be a challenging chapter particularly when the child may already be struggling to find his/her feet perhaps at university or in a new career.
A legal safety net?
Most separating parents consider protecting their children as their first priority. They might assume that there is a legal safety-net firmly in place, providing principles and solutions if they can’t reach an agreement.
The boomerang generation is largely ignored. Young adults are likely to find themselves carving out their own futures, with fewer internal resources than their parents had and in most situations with less – if any – professional support:
- Where there is a dispute about a child’s future, a child arrangement order will resolve the parents’ disagreement. But Parliament is clear that no court shall make such an order which will apply to a child once that child is sixteen unless the circumstances are “exceptional”.
- As far as financial arrangements are concerned:
- The Child Maintenance Service drops children broadly once they complete their A-levels.
- Children are the court’s first consideration but only whilst they are minors.
- For the subsequent period, courts seem content to see children supported whilst in education (or in theory training for a trade, profession or vocation). In practice, however, financial support will extend no longer than the conclusion of the child’s first degree, unless the child’s disability has created long-term financial dependency. Regular guidance from the courts is that it is not for the judge dealing with financial issues between parents to give their child a start in life as a young adult.
- In never-married cases, the child’s home with the applicant-parent may be sold at the same time.
- Support for children post-university during the boomerang years or to give them a start towards independence will be from one parent only or will depend on voluntary election.
Involving older children in the divorce
Despite the almost ubiquitous intention to be fair and supportive of the children, in most cases where there are older children they have been involved in the detail of the separation in a partisan way by one parent or the other. There will be a number of reasons for this. Parents initiating the separation may want to discuss the situation with their children to see whether they should proceed. For others, it is a question of support … “my children know the situation as well as anyone … if they see things my way it will be a vindication that I cannot get anywhere else.”
I was recently consulted by a mother whose priority was to protect the position of her adult children in the family business. Paradoxically by having made this part of her opening position she risked turning the children into pawns in the negotiations with her former partner. She showed the priority she attached to their long-term security. But the court could not offer her any assistance and she opened herself to tactical pressures from her former partner (doubly unfortunate, given that one of his priorities was succession arrangements for his business).
What older children need
Reading through the experiences of older children of divorce that are increasingly available on the internet, it is clear how these children can struggle. They have enough on their plate dealing with the break-up of their family and being brought in as a confidante, judge or sounding board by a parent adds significantly to the ongoing challenges they face. Whilst all families are different some ground-rules set out early on seem to promote better outcomes:
- Reassure your children of your consistent and life-long love and support;
- Release them from the burden of taking sides and keeping secrets. Give them your permission and approval (save where their safety could be compromised) to maintain a relationship with your ex partner.
- Reassure your children of your intention to reach a good solution with your ex and make it clear that you don’t depend on your child’s support to do so.
- Warn them that the process of divorce and separation isn’t easy and that you are going to be a little cranky from time to time.
- Find a form of words to explain the family breakdown that your children can use as well as you. Ideally adopt it jointly with your ex. You will find that it releases you from being caught up in the tittle tattle around your separation that almost always works out badly for all of you. You risk polarising the family and reducing the framework of family and friends that otherwise your children could rely upon.
And yes, none of these are legal solutions that the court will provide. So, above all, what older children need is to have parents who themselves engage with appropriate counselling and therapeutic support, like that provided by Divorce Support Group, to enable them to craft solutions that will really work for their children.
James Pirrie is a director at Family Law in Partnership. He specialises in complex financial issues and non-adversarial and cost effective approaches to divorce and separation including mediation, arbitration and collaborative law. He helps clients take control of the issues that affect them, clarifying priorities, exploring all the options and identifying the best way forward. The leading directories Chambers UK and The Legal 500 UK have listed James as a top ranked, leading individual in the field of family law for many years, with The Legal 500 UK also naming him a leading family mediator. Contact James at E: firstname.lastname@example.org or T: 020 7420 5000.