In a contentious divorce (or even a peaceful one, for that matter), it may be tempting to just get it done and over with. But custody arrangements are not something to rush. There are countless details involved with the raising of children, and you want to be sure all of them are addressed in your legal settlement.
The “where” of child custody
Physical custody is the terminology used to describe with whom a child will live. Joint physical custody typically refers to the arrangement in which the child spends equal time with each parent. Sole physical custody is when the child lives with one parent (the custodial parent) and has visitation with the other parent (the non-custodial parent).
A custody agreement should specify the non-custodial parent’s weekly visitation schedule, as well as who has the child when during school breaks, vacations, and holidays. The agreement should include how modifications to the visitation schedule will be handled, which is important as a child grows and his or her activities change.
Consider a variety of scenarios:
- Who is permitted to drop off/pick the children? Can your ex’s new partner or your former in-laws do it in place of your ex?
- Where will child exchanges take place? At the home? At school?
- Will you alternate holidays (the child spends Christmas with Mom this year and Dad next year) or specify specific holidays for each parent (the child spends Christmas Eve with Mom and Christmas Day with Dad)?
- Can your ex travel out of the area, out of the state, or out of the country with your child?
Sharing decision-making responsibilities
Legal custody involves important child-rearing decisions, such as religious upbringing, schooling, and medical care. Joint legal custody, which means that these decisions are shared by both parents, is common and generally regarded as being in the best interests of the child.
The majority of day-to-day decisions will fall to the custodial parent, but legal custody helps ensure that the non-custodial parent is not left out of more important matters. It’s helpful to also include in the custody agreement how rules and discipline will be established and applied — by both parents.
Putting it together
In the most general sense, physical and legal custody arrangements fall into one of three categories:
- Sole custody — One parent has both legal and physical custody of the child. This type of arrangement might be appropriate, for example, when the non-custodial parent is abusive.
- Joint custody — Both parents share physical and/or legal custody. Joint legal custody is the court’s way of making sure the parent who does not have physical custody is still involved in major decisions regarding the child.
- Split custody — One parent has legal and physical custody of one/some children; the other parent has legal and physical custody of the remaining children. The Disney movie The Parent Trap presents one example of such an arrangement.
Beyond child support
The cost to raise a child to the age of 18 is about a quarter of a million dollars, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So, it’s critical that a child custody agreement also describe which parent is responsible for major expenses that are not covered by child support. You’ll want to have your custody agreement address such financial questions as:
- Who will include the child on his or her health insurance plan?
- Who will cover the child’s tuition (to private school or college)? What about back-to-school clothes and expenses?
- Who will pay for the child’s braces? Eyeglasses? Contact lenses?
- Who will pay for the child’s cell phone, Internet access, and the associated devices?
- Who will help the child buy a car? Car insurance? Gas? Repairs?
- Who’s responsible for extracurricular expenses (piano lessons, ballet classes, football cleats, prom gowns)?
- Who will cosign for loans taken out in the child’s name?
- Which parent is entitled to claim the child as a dependent for tax purposes?
Ask for help from a custody expert
When working out the details of a custody agreement, protect yourself and your child by consulting with an attorney who specializes in divorce and custody issues. It is strongly recommended that each parent obtain counsel —details that are missed because you didn’t have a lawyer will likely be caught by a judge, but by then it may be too late for you to strongly influence their resolution.
Divorce is an emotional process, and important decisions made in the heat of the moment can turn out badly. If you do decide to create your own parenting plan without the help of an attorney, at least have it professionally reviewed to make sure you and your ex can sign the agreement with confidence.