It’s easy to have preconceived notions about how child custody will look after a divorce. If you’re the adult child of divorced parents yourself, you might assume that whatever the custody arrangement your parents had was and is still the norm. If you have a lot of divorced friends with similar custody arrangements, you might assume that most custody arrangements look like theirs. But there’s really no one-size-fits-all custody solution, and the custody arrangement you end up with initially might look very different from the custody arrangement that you have five or ten years down the road. Like everything else about parenting, there’s no one custody rule that works for every parent and every child in every circumstance. Take a look at some of the ins and outs of getting and following a custody agreement.
Who Gets Custody?
A very common custody misconception is the belief that family courts always award full or primary custody to the mother of the children, not to the father.
In reality, most custody cases aren’t decided by family court judges at all – only a tiny percentage of custody cases go all the way to the completion of a trial. In most cases, custody agreements are settled out of court between the couple – sometimes with the help of a mediator – at some point during the process, and family courts simply sign off on the arrangement that both parties have agreed to. So, if mothers end up with more parenting time more often than fathers, it’s because both parents agree to that arrangement more often, not because family court judges are biased in favor of mothers.
In fact, when given the opportunity to decide, family courts tend to prefer a shared custody arrangement whenever possible. This is based on research that shows that children have better outcomes when both parents are actively involved in their lives. In most cases, parents who are fit, not abusive or negligent, and can provide a safe environment for their children have an excellent chance of being awarded joint custody if they pursue it.
What Does Custody Look Like?
Parents who share custody often opt for one of a couple of common arrangements. Parents who live in close proximity to each other might opt for an alternating weekend schedule, or switch off alternating weeks. Parents who live far from each other might have an arrangement where the children stay with one parent while school is in session and spend summer vacations and other long holidays with the other parent.
But while these are some of the most common shared custody arrangements, they’re by no means the only options. Parents often choose to share custody in a way that works best for their own schedules, which can mean many different things. For example, some parents simply arrange custody around their own work schedules. One half of a divorced couple might choose to work day shifts and the other chooses to work night shifts so that they can trade parenting duties somewhat evenly. When both parents are low-income and can’t afford daycare, this type of arrangement might be necessary and may work well enough for everyone involved. And family dynamics or other factors may lead parents to choose unconventional custody arrangements that nevertheless work for their families. For instance, children of same-sex couples sometimes have an additional biological parent who is worked into the custody arrangements during a divorce, so that the child has time with all involved parents.
There have been cases where the children stay in their primary home full time while the parents move in and out depending upon whose turn it is to be the primary parent at the time. While unusual, some parents feel that this arrangement provides the children more stability and are willing and able to make the sacrifice of moving in and out themselves, rather than having the children shuttle back and forth between two homes.
Another unusual custody arrangement involves separating siblings. Courts often hesitate to do this at all, but there are circumstances when separating siblings works out for the family. For example, when one child has extensive medical needs and another does not, separating them might ensure that the sick child can get the attention they need without depriving the healthy child of the chance to also have a parent’s undivided attention. In such a situation, parents might swap children periodically as well as arranging time for the children to spend together.
How Can Custody Change Over Time?
Your custody agreement may be labeled a permanent custody order, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the details of the custody agreement will never change.
Very often, custody agreements change just because life circumstances naturally change as time goes on. If you and your child’s other parent separate when your child is a baby or toddler, it’s highly likely that something will happen to change the custody arrangement before that child reaches adulthood. You might move. Your child’s other parent might move. One or both of you might remarry and have more children, which can mean new obligations and a need to rearrange custody schedules.
As children get older, they begin to have their own social lives and obligations. Older children and young teenagers may join clubs or teams or take on other extracurricular activities, which may mean adjusting parents’ schedules to accommodate them. Older teenagers may have jobs of their own that need to be worked around. Older children and teens tend to have their own wants and needs as well, and these need to be taken into account. An older child or teen living with one parent might want to try living with the other for a while or might simply request more or less time with a particular parent for any number of reasons. While children are not given an absolute say in which parent they spend time with and when they spend that time, their desires and opinions should be considered and accommodated to the extent that it’s healthy for them to do so.
Custody isn’t any one thing. It should be whatever works best for the children and the parents involved. To find out more about achieving a custody arrangement that is best for your family, consider contacting a legal resource group like National Family Solutions to help you advocate for your custodial rights.