Determining child custody is one of the most important and most difficult parts of a divorce or separation between a couple with children. Traditionally, mothers have retained physical custody of minor children, with dads limited to every-other-weekend schedules.
More and more often, however, parents are coming up with custody and visitation agreements that split parenting time more evenly or in non-traditional ways. Fewer than five percent of divorcing couples cannot come to an agreement on custody and visitation before coming to court, and judges tend to approve almost any schedule that both parents have agreed upon.
Creating a Custody Agreement That Works
Family court judges will look favorably on most agreements between divorcing parents as long as those agreements meet the child or children’s basic needs and treat all parties fairly. Needs that should be considered when making custody and visitation agreements include a child’s basic needs for:
- Love, protection, and guidance
- Medical care
- Food, clothing, and shelter
Custody agreements should consider the children’s ages, personalities, experiences, and abilities. Every child is different; what works for your friend’s or co-worker’s children may not work for yours. Some kids are fine with spending three nights a week at mom’s house and three nights at dad’s, while some would be upset by so much variation in their daily routines.
Children should have regular and consistent time with each parent for both everyday care and special occasions. Parenting time agreements should include plans for:
- Daily activities
It’s vital to give children a sense of security and routine, particularly during a time in their lives when they may feel insecure and unsure of the future. At the same time, it’s important to be flexible when it comes to enforcing the plan. When a kid gets sick, has extracurricular activities, or one of the parents has a family event or special occasion, parenting schedules may need to be adjusted.
Younger children’s concept of time is different from that of older children, and they often need more consistency. It is generally a good idea to have a regular schedule and stick to it. Most children benefit from having a routine they can count on. When you make a schedule, think about the quality of the relationships. Not just the relationship between the children and each parent, but also between the parents and between the children and any other caregivers.
Sharing Information and Responsibility
In most cases, except when the safety of a child is at stake, custody agreements should ensure that both parents:
- Have the other parent’s address, phone numbers, and other contact information
- Have access to information about the children, such as school and medical records
- Can call, e-mail, or otherwise communicate with the children
- Can take the children to after-school activities, doctor appointments, and church or religious activities
Physical vs. Legal Custody
- Where should our children be during the week? On weekends?
- Where should our children be for holidays, summer vacations, and special days?
- Which parent will be in charge of which activities (sports, music, homework, etc.)?
- Which parent is in charge at which times?
- How will our children get from one parent to the other? Who will pay the costs of transportation?
- Medical and dental care
- Emergency care
- Jobs and driving (for older children)
Communicate with Each Other
Parents will not always agree on what is best for their children, whether they are together or divorced. When making decisions about your children, how you talk to each other and to your children can make a big difference. Try to think about the other parent as a business partner–you don’t have to like them personally to work together effectively. Here are some tips:
- Be polite, just like you would be at work.
- Stay on the subject. Focus on doing what is best for your children instead of past events.
- Control your emotions, just as you would at work.
- Be clear and specific when you talk to the other parent. Write things down and keep business-like records of important agreements.
- Keep your promises. Your children need to be able to trust and rely on you.
- Do not put your children in the middle of your arguments with the other parent.
- It should be obvious, but do not use physical violence or be mentally or emotionally abusive, either with the other parent or children. If you do, you will put your rights to see your children at risk.