When a married couple with children decides to divorce, they must draw up a custody agreement that preserves the best interests of their children. It is in the best interests of both spouses to come to mutually agreeable terms and focus on what is best for their children. When either divorcing spouse attempts to “weaponize” the children against the other spouse or otherwise tries to interfere with the children’s relationship to the other spouse, this is ultimately destructive for everyone involved. Having a family law attorney may be able to help mediate this process to make the transition smooth for both parties involved.
Parents may have strong negative feelings for one another following a divorce, but they should do their best to keep these feelings from affecting their relationships with their children. In almost every case, children benefit most from having consistent contact with both parents. Developing a custody agreement that works for the best interests of the children may not be equally appealing to both parents, but the system strives for fairness and practicality, and the court ultimately has the responsibility to rule in favor of the best interests of the children in a divorce case.
The court refers to many factors in deciding custody in a divorce case. Generally, the court wants to minimize disruption to the children’s typical daily schedule. When a couple decides to file for divorce, the court will assess each parent’s income, work schedule, criminal background, and the reasons for the divorce in determining an appropriate custody arrangement. For example, if one parent has a substance abuse problem or a criminal record, the court will likely find these issues as grounds to deny primary custody, or the court may require a specific set of visitation terms for the noncustodial parent with a spotty background.
Ultimately, the court uses various factors to determine the fitness of both parents. The parent deemed more fit than the other for any reason will likely win majority custody of the children, also called primary physical custody. The parent with physical custody generally has the power to make important decisions on behalf of the children and is primarily responsible for ensuring a safe and nurturing upbringing. The other parent (the “noncustodial” parent) must have permission from the custodial parent with primary physical custody before making any major decisions for the child, such as enrollment in school, medical decisions, or other decisions concerning major life events.
50/50 Joint Custody
If the court deems both parents fit, and both parents have work schedules that allow them to spend an equal amount of time with their children, the court may approve a 50/50 joint custody agreement. In such an agreement, both parents share physical custody of their children and must come to an agreement for any major decisions on behalf of their children. A 50/50 joint custody agreement can take many forms, but in most cases the children will spend one week with one parent and then the next week with the other parent. The court may approve a different joint custody arrangement on a case-by-case basis, but as long as the parents qualify for physical custody and can spend an equal amount of time with their children, the custody agreement must be 50/50.
A 50/50 agreement could involve the children switching between parents every week at the same time. For example, the children may switch parents every Friday after school, alternating each week. The court may also approve a less consistently disruptive schedule and approve a switch every other week, effectively allowing each parent two weeks at a time with their kids.
Other formats are more complex but ensure a more even distribution of time with each parent, such as a 3-4-4-3 schedule with three days with one parent, four days with the second parent, four days with the first parent, and then three days with the second parent. A 2-2-5-5 schedule would entail two days with each parent followed by five days with each parent.
Other Possible Visitation Schedules
When one parent has primary physical custody and spends more time with the children than the other parent, the divorcing couple will need to develop a visitation agreement to ensure the noncustodial parent has time to spend with his or her children. These visitation schedules usually follow an 80-20, 70-30, or 60-40 framework.
When one parent has custody 80% of the time and the noncustodial parent only has custody 20% of the time, the children may visit the noncustodial parent every other weekend. Another possible schedule could be the children spend the first, third, and fifth weekends each month with the noncustodial parent. An 80-20 arrangement could also include visitation every third weekend.
In a 70-30 custody arrangement, the custodial parent has custody every week and then the children spend each weekend with the noncustodial parent. Another option could be a simple 5-2 schedule in which the children live with one parent for five days per week and then spend the other two days with the other parent. The parents may also decide on a week-based arrangement, with the children living with one parent for two weeks and then the other parent for one week.
Many 60-40 custody arrangements function on an extended weekend framework. For example, the children would spend the week with one parent and then spend an extended weekend with the other. While some visitation schedules may end on Sunday afternoon, a 60-40 extended weekend arrangement would entail the children leaving school on Friday to go to the other parent and then returning to school Monday morning, leaving to go to the other parent’s house that afternoon. A 60-40 schedule could also entail the children spending four days with one parent and then three days with the other parent. This option often works best for parents who arrive at a 50/50 custody agreement but their schedule involves too many switches throughout the week.
If both parents remain living in the same area, working out an equitable custody agreement is much easier. Since the children can remain in the area they already live, a custody agreement may simply mean they take a different bus home every Friday and the parents can handle important decisions as they arrive with equal authority. However, if one parent has shown the court any reason why he or she cannot provide the same level of parental care and support as the other, the court will likely rule in favor of awarding primary physical custody to the other parent.
Making Your Visitation Schedule Work
It is vital for divorcing parents to remember that the court has a duty to rule in the best interests of their children, regardless of the fitness and availability of the parents. Both parents may have equal ability to handle a 50/50 custody split, but the court may deem that repeated switching is detrimental to the children’s lives and instead opt for a 60-40 or 70-30 split. It is also possible for the court to rule in favor of reasonable visitation, or allowing parents who share joint custody to work out a reasonable custody agreement between them. However, factors like one parent moving out of the area could influence the court to rule in favor of the children remaining with the parent who will stay in the family home to preserve day-to-day stability.
Parents’ best option for making the custody and visitation system work more smoothly is communication with their exes. Although a divorced couple may have many personal issues with each other, they should do their best to avoid allowing these issues to seep into discussions about their children. Remaining cooperative and patient when deciding custody is the best option; there is almost always an opportunity to adjust an existing custody agreement later.