ERIN SIMPSON, FOUNDER, ERIN SIMPSON FAMILY LAW
When she was a child, Erin Simpson’s parents handled their divorce beautifully. As a family lawyer now she does everything she can to ensure her clients’ children get the same loving gift.
“One of the reasons I went into family law was to help children,” Erin says. “My own parents divorced when I was 6 and it impacted me.”
That impact, though, was not negative. Rather, the experience was Erin’s inspiration when she launched her own legal practice to specialize in family law in July 2018. The mother of two, who has been practicing family law for eleven years, realized it was time to practice law her own way for her own reasons.
“The way my parents handled their divorce impacted me in a good way,” Erin remembers. “They did not fight in front of us, they did not discuss the issues of their settlement, and they never spoke negatively of each other. My dad would come over for holidays after he moved out and we still had family time. They never put my sister or me in the middle of any conflict.”
That gift of a good divorce can sound like an impossible objective for some parents, but in an era when joint custody is the norm, it is one that can be achieved by accepting one simple fact: the best interests of the children must be of the highest priority.
“When clients come to me, they are often in a state of depression and crisis,” Erin says, “but we work together and most of them realize that when it comes to matters of custody, it’s not about them or the other person, but about creating as healthy a situation for the children as possible. To do that, they have to treat the other party with respect no matter what else might be happening between them.”
Sole legal custody, where one parent makes all the decisions for a child and the other has only visitation is the exception, not the rule, and parents need a very good reason to seek it.
“There are situations where parties cannot cooperate,” Erin cautions. “It is difficult, if not impossible, to co-parent where there has been a history of domestic abuse or one parent is absent for long periods of time. While you cannot anticipate every future decision to be made when negotiating and drafting a parenting plan, it is possible and preferred to come up with a regime to eliminate areas of conflicts. Schools, doctors and dentists all go into a parenting plan. Once education, medical treatment, and religious upbringing are set out and scheduled, the potential areas of disagreement are reduced. It also helps to set out how communication between the parents will happen.”
If forming a parenting plan seems impossible, Erin often recommends mediation as the first course of action.
“I don’t like to put parenting issues before the court unless there are clinical issues or the parties require recommendations of experts to determine what is in the best interest of the child,” Erin says “There are a lot of variables you can’t control once you go to court, so it’s better to try to resolve everything that you can on your own. Once you choose litigation, you have to make sure to avoid the lure of creating a he-said, she-said situation and stick to the facts.”
“As much evidence as possible has to be gathered in the initial stages, before a case conference, so we can start to gauge how the judge is going to view the case,” Erin says. “No case is as cut and dry as you might think. Limiting contact with one parent is not something a judge is going to do to a child without being absolutely certain it is the only action to take.”
For the vast majority of people, even those who are in a crisis, there is a path to a good divorce for children. That path is the one that lets you and your former partner stay in control of your own matter rather than give that power up to a judge. While you and your partner might not be capable of that yet, Erin recommends working through each of these steps to help you get there.
1. Are you in therapy? More often than not, people going through a break up are in therapy and it helps them shore up their emotional resources during an emotionally draining time. If you are served with documents containing information that you know to be false, while you are fighting for what you need and want, being reactive can cause huge problems. You must be able to control your emotions during legal events. Getting support to help you do that proves maturity and parental competence.
“It is especially true when there is a lot of hurt or anger and, depending on the reasons for the divorce, it is probably completely justified,” Erin says. “A good therapist can support someone in the middle of a divorce through those complicated emotions while helping them recognize that a bad spouse is not necessarily a bad parent.”
In any situation, whether it is a case conference, a mediation session or during a hearing, the unreasonable person who is entrenched in their position will inevitably be unhappy with the outcome.
“The person who is calm and reasonable and who does not engage in mud-slinging is going to fair much better in the process,” Erin says.
2. Consider whether your children are in need of services, support or help.
Children might need a little extra support to work through emotions or adjust to living in two different homes.
“What I tend to do, if the child is struggling, is refer clients to the Families in Transitions website,” Erin says. “From there they can see what programs are available and let me know if there is anything that might help. Then, I’d write to the other side and let them know what is happening in terms of therapy for the child. If there is a school issue, then I’d get the teacher’s opinion about what should happen in terms of help to reinforce the necessity of support services for the child.”
3. Don’t engage in the same attitude that you’re complaining about.
The golden rule is never more apt than it is during a divorce. Treat others as you wish to be treated. This includes in person conversations, over the phone and on social media.
“When you are texting or emailing your former partner, remember that it will probably end up as evidence in court,” Erin says. “It won’t be just the one email either, but the entire chain of messages. Remember to be polite and respectful always. It’s a good habit to force upon yourself.”
Before you hit send, just stop and ask yourself: If this were used in court, what would it say about me?
These tips, taken together, create good emotional habits that make co-parenting after a break up doable.
“I have seen parents agree to take the kids out together and spend time together as a family without prompting from counsel,” Erin says. “I have clients who make plans to have a kid’s birthday party together just by learning to communicate respectfully with each other. When parents can put their own issues aside they are setting their kids up for a lifetime of resilience and love no matter what else happens to them.”
That is a gift all parents should want to give their children.
Kate Baggott's technology and business journalism has appeared in the Technology Review at MIT, the Globe and Mail, Canada Computes, the Vancouver Sun, and on the Business to Business News Network.
Kate Baggott is the author of two short story collections.
Erin Simpson Family Law
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