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Children’s Extracurricular Activities And Divorce
Children are expensive. Children need to be fed, clothed and cared for when they’re babies. Then when children get into school, they inevitably get into activities that require some kind of financial contribution from the parents. When the parents of the children are divorced, there must be some kind of arrangement made to pay for these activities. But what exactly are the children’s extracurricular activities in the context of an Illinois divorce?
Who decides what extracurricular activities the children will be in?
Before the law changed in 2016, whoever had “custody” of the children would make all of the decisions for the children including what extracurricular activities they were involved in.
Now, the concept of custody has been abolished in Illinois and the court requires parents to allocate specific responsibilities to each parent. Specifically, the statute states that “The court shall allocate to one or both of the parents the significant decision-making responsibility for each significant issue affecting the child” 750 ILCS 5/602.5(b) The “significant issues” contemplated by the statute are 1) Education, 2) Health, 3) Religion and 4) Extracurricular Activities.
In reality, most parents will agree to jointly make decisions for each of these factors. This effectively means that each parent has a veto as to whether the child will participate in a particular extracurricular activity.
If one parent insists that a child participate in an extracurricular activity while the other parent objects, then one of the parents must take the matter to court to force compliance. The court will then make a decision based on the “best interests of the child.”
Activities are almost always encouraged by the courts and will be approved if they are reasonable. The best objection to an activity is not that the activity is inappropriate but rather that it is too much. Many extracurricular activities can distract from school work or other positive activities in the child’s life. If the child has siblings, it’s not fair to the other siblings to be attend the same activities without participating in them (parenting time is always conducted with all children with the same parent).
Once an extracurricular activity is deemed agreed or appropriate per the allocation of parenting responsibilities and parenting time, whichever parent has parenting time must take the children to those activities during their parenting time.
Who pays for a child’s extracurricular activity after an Illinois Divorce?
The first test in determining who pays for an extracurricular activity is determining if the activity is extracurricular at all. If an activity is not extracurricular, there’s no obligation on any parent to pay for it.
Typically, in any legal proceeding the statute will define what a thing is exactly. In Illinois, the statute does not define what an extracurricular activity is. When allocating responsibility for extracurricular activities the statute merely lists the term “extracurricular activities.” 750 ILCS 5/602.5(b)(4)
When the Illinois statute doesn’t define a word, the court must apply the word’s plain and ordinary meaning. Alvarez v. Pappas, 229 Ill. 2d 217, 228 (2008). This usually means looking the word up in the dictionary.
Webster’s dictionary defines “extracurricular” as “not falling within the scope of a regular curriculum” or “of or relating to officially or semiofficially approved and usually organized student activities (such as athletics) connected with school.” This is a broad definition so if you want to an activity to be considered as “extracurricular” for the purposes of your domestic relations case, you should refer to the dictionary definition.
The Illinois Statute that explains how extracurricular activities get paid gives some more direction as to what should be considered an extracurricular activity.
“Extracurricular activities and school expenses. The court, in its discretion in addition to the basic child support obligation, may order either or both parents owing a duty of support to the child to contribute to the reasonable school and extracurricular activity expenses incurred which are intended to enhance the educational, athletic, social, or cultural development of the child.” 750 ILCS 505(a)(3.6)
The language “intended to enhance the educational, athletic, social, or cultural development of the child” can be used to either support or discount whether an activity is an extracurricular activity requiring parental financial support.
Almost anything can plausibly be considered a valid extracurricular activity under either the dictionary definition or the statute’s suggestive language. If you’re contending that an activity is not an extracurricular activity your best argument is that the child should not be doing that activity at all because it is no in the child’s best interests.
There are a lot of Illinois appellate cases that define what appropriate extracurricular activities can be. In re Marriage of Sorokin, 2017 IL App (2d) 160885, (considering a parent’s obligation to contribute to the cost of the children’s tutoring, sports programs, clubs, and summer camps); In re Marriage of Moorthy, 2015 IL App (1st) 132077, (considering a parent’s obligation to pay for a child’s classes in various sports, hobbies, and academic interests, some of which were offered by the child’s school while others were offered elsewhere); In re Marriage of Florence, 260 Ill. App. 3d 116, 122 (1994) (addressing a parent’s obligation to contribute to the cost of the child’s volleyball, softball, swimming, and clarinet lessons); In re Marriage of Hamilton, 2019 IL App (5th) 170295, (horseback riding is an appropriate extracurricular activity)
More typically, parents object to the cost of an activity rather than the activity itself. In this situation, the objecting parent to reasonable-ness of the expense as the statute only requires the parent to “contribute to the reasonable school and extracurricular activity expenses.”
When preparing final documents you can avoid the issue of reasonable costs by simply writing in a “contribution cap” such as “no party shall be obligated to pay more than $ 5000 of the children’s extracurricular expenses.”
Judges usually object to the costs of strange activities or notoriously expensive activities such as hockey or horseback riding. To overcome these objections, you should request an evidentiary hearing where you submit photos of the child enjoying the activity into evidence. A picture is worth a thousand words and if the money is even theoretically available, the court will order it.
To get a child out of an extracurricular activity, you should request an in camera conference with the child. That is a meeting between the child and the judge in the judge’s chambers with a court reporter. Children are not as into their extracurricular activities as we parents believe. No child is going to tell a judge, “Please force my parent to pay for my piano lessons.”
On a more somber note, children want to please both parents so they will simply claim to not be interested in the activity as a way to diffuse the conflict. If you use this strategy please do so with your children’s best interests in mind.