Most people have an image in their minds of what it means to be a parent. And often, that image involves living with your children. Making them breakfast in the morning and seeing them off to school. Tucking them into bed at night, helping them with their homework, celebrating holidays at home – those types of things.
But after a divorce or the end of a relationship, many parents no longer live with their children. Deciding which parent the child will live with following a split between the parents is legally known as deciding custody. Some parents share custody. Which usually means that the child lives with each parent part-time (although it may not be an even 50-50 split).
However, in other situations, one parent retains custody (the custodial parent) and the other parent does not have custody (the non-custodial parent).
Types of Child Custody
When people talk casually about custody, they’re usually just referring to the child’s living situation. But it is important to recognize that there are two types of custody: physical and legal.
- Physical custody refers to which parent the child lives with.
- Legal custody refers to the right to make important decisions – usually legal, medical, educational, or religious decisions – for your child.
Depending on the situation, a non-custodial parent might be completely non-custodial. Their child doesn’t live with them and they also don’t have the right to make major decisions for that child – or they might not have physical custody but retain legal custody – their child doesn’t live with them, but they do have the right to weigh in on major life decisions.
For example, when parents live too far apart to reasonably share physical custody, the parent who doesn’t have physical custody often still shares legal custody jointly with their child’s other parent.
There are several reasons why a parent might not retain physical custody of their child following a divorce or breakup. A common reason is distance. In most states, a child must spend a minimum number of nights with each parent in order for an arrangement to qualify as a joint custody arrangement.
If the parents live too far away from each other for that minimum to be reasonably met, then only one parent will have custody. However, the other parent may instead be granted visitation – the right to spend time with or make contact with their child.
In many cases, a non-custodial parent still has some parental rights and can still participate in parenting their children. And unless a non-custodial parent is legally prevented from having any contact with their child, they should try to maintain some type of contact. Research shows that children benefit from ongoing involvement with both parents.
Know Your Rights as a Non-Custodial Parent
If you’re a non-custodial parent, you can still show up for your child. If you have visitation rights, use them. You can ask the court for a visitation agreement that guarantees that you will be able to spend certain days and times with your children. Some parents set informal visitation agreements between themselves.
But if you have a court-ordered visitation agreement, you can ask the court to enforce it if your ex refuses to honor it. So it’s to your advantage to ask the court for a formal visitation agreement. You can also communicate with your child through regular phone calls or video chats.
Again, many parents agree on an informal schedule for this type of contact, but you can also ask for a formal court agreement, and it’s probably in your best interests to do so. Parenting as a non-custodial parent usually also includes communication with your ex.
While the marital or romantic relationship might be over, your relationship with each other as co-parents is ongoing. The custodial parent can help you understand what’s going on in your child’s life and include you in decisions and important moments in your child’s life if you can maintain a cordial relationship with them.
It can be difficult to establish this kind of relationship in the aftermath of a divorce or breakup. But it’s important to put your feelings about your ex to the side in the interest of doing what’s best for your child. Which is stay involved in their life to whatever extent is possible.
Non-custodial parents may struggle with feelings of loss over not being able to live with or spend equal time with their child. While custodial parents whose former partners do not have any custody may struggle with feelings of overwhelm. Parenting is a difficult job, and parents who are doing the job alone are doing the work of at least two people, often with little relief.
Custodial parents may also have anger or hurt feelings directed toward their ex. They may struggle with the idea of continuing to include them in their child’s life. But if you’re a custodial parent, and your child’s other parent is both a fit parent and willing to be involved in your child’s life, you should make an effort to keep the non-custodial parent involved for your child’s sake.
Know Your Rights as a Custodial Parent
You can do that by respecting any formal or informal visitation agreements. Encourage your child to initiate contact with their other parent when they want to. Also, keep your ex informed about important and mundane facets of your child’s life.
If possible, incorporate your ex into special or important events in your child’s life, like recitals, birthdays, sports competitions, and holidays. Make sure that your ex has up-to-date information about your child’s health, grades, activities, and social life.
Remember that you’re not doing this to make life easier for your ex. You’re doing it to ensure that your child gets all the benefits of having both parents in their lives. As the custodial parent, you are in the best position to facilitate a relationship between your child and your ex.
Parenting post-divorce isn’t easy for anyone, whether or not they end up with custody. A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help to ensure that high legal bills don’t create even more of a burden for a family already dealing with divorce and custody issues.