It’s easy for dads to feel like they are at a disadvantage in court when it comes to custody and visitation cases. In the past, courts often presumed that mothers were the caregivers of children, so custody arrangements tended to favor them. These days, however, experts recognize that children benefit the most if both parents are actively involved in their lives, and many states have implemented laws preventing courts from considering gender when deciding custody cases. It’s up to fathers to assert their parental rights and not settle for parenting plans that diminish their role in their children’s lives.
Start as You Mean to Go On
Whether you’re going through a divorce or separation or you’re an unmarried father establishing paternity, it’s important to work toward the custody or visitation schedule that you want right from the start. When courts consider the best interests of the child, they often consider major disruptions to the child’s established living situation and routine to be less than ideal, so you don’t want to start by agreeing to less than you want on a temporary basis. There’s a good chance that temporary will eventually become permanent.
Decide whether or not you want physical custody. When only one parent has physical custody, that’s usually called sole custody, and the other parent gets visitation. However, it’s possible for parents to share joint physical custody, which generally means that both parents have ongoing, frequent access to their children. Unless one parent is unavailable or unfit, there’s no real reason that sole custody has to be granted to one parent, so there’s no reason not to pursue joint custody if that’s what you want. Parenting time generally doesn’t need to be split exactly 50/50 for parents to be awarded joint physical custody.
Parents can also split legal custody. Legal custody is what gives you the authority to make important decisions for your children, such as legal, medical, or educational decisions. Legal custody is frequently shared by both parents, and you don’t need to have sole custody or joint physical custody to share legal custody.
If you’re pursuing visitation and not custody, visitation schedules can be determined by the court or agreed upon between parents. If you and your child’s other parent agree on a visitation schedule, the court will most likely approve it. If the two of you don’t agree, you can make your case to the court for the visitation schedule that you want.
In any case, your best bet is to decide early on what kind of custody or visitation you’re seeking so that you can go in prepared to make your case.
Don’t Bring Child Support Into It
It’s important to treat child support as a separate issue from custody and visitation. Courts generally treat these two issues separately – a parent who has been ordered to pay child support must pay it, even if the other parent tries to interfere with visitation. The solution is for the noncustodial parent to ask the court to enforce the visitation order, not to stop paying child support. Conversely, a parent who is granted visitation has the right to see their child even if they fall behind on their child support payments. The custodial parent can ask the court to enforce the child support order, but they aren’t allowed to interfere with visitation.
When you bring child support into conversations about custody and visitation, you open the door for others to wonder whether you want to increase your time with your child just to reduce your child support payments. Children need both involvement and financial support from both parents, but it’s in your best interest to treat these two issues separately as the legal system does.
Try Mediation Before a Court Battle
Divorces, custody cases, and child support cases can all get heated. But all of the legal work will be done long before your child is an adult, and you and your child’s other parent will still have to raise your child as co-parents. Even after your child reaches adulthood, chances are that both you and the other parent will still want to be involved in their life – which means that you’ll be interacting with your ex on some level or another at least until your child becomes an adult, and probably for the rest of your life. The experience will be better for everyone if you and your ex are not mortal enemies.
Before entering into a protracted court battle, it’s worth reaching out to your ex to see if things can be settled amicably between the two of you. Mediation might be a good option – with a neutral third party on hand to keep tempers from flaring and ensure fairness, you may be able to come to an arrangement that works well for both of you – and more importantly, one that works well for your child. Be aware that there are also circumstances that would make mediation difficult.
This doesn’t mean that you should give in and accept less time with your children. But you can calmly lay out your requests and sincerely listen to their requests. Be willing to give a little to get a little – for example, if both you and your ex feel strongly about having the kids at Christmas, you may be able to compromise by agreeing to alternate years. Think of it as something that you’re doing for your child, not for your ex. After all, the less conflict there is between you and your ex, the happier your child will be. And less time, energy, and money spent fighting in court is more time, energy, and money to spend on your child.
Settling custody and visitation matters can be difficult, but a legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you prepare documents and get ready to represent yourself in court. With determination and careful preparation, you can achieve a custody and visitation schedule that allows you to be the best possible father to your children.