Paul Volker, an airline mechanic in Minneapolis, considers himself well organized. But he will never forget the holiday season three years ago when a scheduling mix-up with his former wife threw their extended family's plans into disarray. His three children arrived four days early for Christmas.
"Nobody was where they were supposed to be," he says, his voice on the phone still reflecting the magnitude of the snafu.
His cousin Kathleen Kissoon, a family law attorney in Minneapolis, adds, "The kids will never forget that Christmas because it was so terrible. It wasn't that anyone was vicious. It was just a misunderstanding."
Vowing to find a better way to help all divorced families keep track of visitation - "If it's Tuesday, this must be Mom's house" - Mr. Volker turned to the Internet. Slowly, he developed a website for families living in separate households.
Called Ourfamilywizard.com, the venture - two years in the making - enables parents to coordinate schedules through color-coded calendars, replacing random datebooks and scribbled pieces of paper. It is catching the attention of judges, lawyers, and family mediators, who hope it will help to harmonize family relationships and keep parents out of court.
"Very often in the early stages of divorce, a couple's ability to communicate is very poor," explains Nancy Zalusky Berg, a matrimonial lawyer in Minneapolis. "The face-to-face communication becomes very volatile and emotional. People don't hear very well when they're emotional."
But with the calendar and e-mail, she says, parents can document scheduled karate lessons, for example, "as opposed to arguing about whether somebody told [somebody else]."
Days that children spend with fathers are shaded in one color, while time with mothers is shaded in another. Each child's activities appear in a different color. Color bars on each activity indicate which parent will drop off or pick up the children. Parents can print out the monthly calendar and post it on the refrigerator.
Other features include an expense log and a family message board for short communications from one person to another. An information bank includes a record of vital statistics, school schedules, contact information for teachers and child-care providers - even clothing sizes, useful for a parent who does not usually shop for the children.
After a divorce, the decree and terms of the agreement are posted in each couple's program, accessible only by a password. If questions arise about visitation, child support, or other issues, the parties involved can go online. That clarification - faceless, voiceless, emotionless - prevents disputes, saving time and legal expenses.
"Fees in divorce cases are just going out of sight," Ms. Kissoon says. "The court system is looking for ways to resolve conflict, so parents can solve things themselves."
To that end, James Swenson, a family court district judge in Hennepin County, Minn., even orders some couples to use the program as a way of reducing hostility.
He measures its success in part by its ability to keep divorced parents from returning to court again and again, thus reducing the need for judicial involvement.
Beyond that practical advantage for the court, Judge Swenson is intrigued by what Our Family Wizard does for children.
"Children suffer when they watch their parents fight," he says. "If I can help the parents find a way to communicate that doesn't mean the child is in the room when a parent is on the phone screaming at the other, kids are going to be less scarred by the whole process."
Each parent pays $99 a year for a subscription to the encrypted website. Grandparents and others who need to keep track of children's schedules can obtain third-party viewing access to the calendar for $25 a year.
One contentious issue in some divorces involves the money parents spend on children. In Minnesota, as in various other states, divorced parents must share child-care costs on the basis of their income. Other expenses they must divide can include children's uninsured medical bills and money for their activities.
"The postdivorce situation often brings tremendous conflict associated with cost-sharing," Swenson explains. To minimize such quarrels, a financial log on the site tracks what each parent spends, so the other can be reimbursed promptly. Parents can scan in receipts.
Another contentious area that often leads to contempt charges in court involves school activities. One parent will claim the other is not keeping him or her informed about school events.
"Nothing makes a parent madder than feeling left out of the equation," Swenson says. "They're hurt when they don't know." When the child's school schedule and extracurricular schedule on the site, neither parent is left in the dark.
Kissoon's clients also confront this issue. "You get a situation where one parent will say, 'She didn't tell me about the ballet recital.' If the recital is on the calendar, kids have a chance for both parents to be there. This way everybody knows what's going on, and you're out of excuses [for not telling]."
Families can also swap visitation dates online. As Kissoon explains, one parent might send a message to the other that reads, "We want to go somewhere on the 18th of next month. We'll trade you that date for this one." The divorced partner can reflect on it quietly, rather than react hastily and negatively on the phone.
Divorced fathers are most often the ones who call to sign up, according to Dara Wegener-Volker, customer service representative. "They'll say, 'Anything I can do to not talk to my ex-spouse will help, because we just fight.' "
In Minnesota, divorce education classes are mandatory for parents who split up. Anita Miller, director of divorce education at the nonprofit Storefront Group in Minneapolis, sees a recurring pattern. "A lot of times it's not the divorce itself that bothers children, but the level of conflict, or being caught in the middle," she says.
Benjamin Garber, a child psychologist in Merrimack, N.H., frequently recommends the program to divorced parents who are "intractably conflicted," unable to put aside their negative feelings toward one another to meet their children's needs.
Although the website does not get to the cause of their problems, he notes that it helps to keep problems from erupting. He also finds it useful for parents who are separated geographically.
The program currently serves 170 families in 20 states. Visits to it have doubled in the past six months. Judges have issued more than 20 court orders requiring families to use the site.
Only subscribers can access the encrypted site, and even employees of the website don't have access to private information.
"We know how many people log on every day, because we have to have sufficient bandwidth to handle the traffic," Kissoon says. "But we don't know who logs on. We can't see any content of what goes on with each parent."
Divorced families are not the only ones signing up and logging on. Ms. Berg, the matrimonial lawyer, uses the calendar with her husband to keep track of their busy schedules. They list friends' telephone numbers and names of baby sitters, along with other information. "It's handy," she says.