Joint custody is a wonderful concept that is difficult to achieve. It requires two very special parents concerned enough about their children to put their own disputes aside when it comes to the children. While it requires a major commitment and a great deal lot of work, it is more than worth the effort if you realize even part of its promise.
Rather than shooting for the moon, and programming a likely failure to achieve the ideal joint custody, strive instead for the more attainable aspects that most easily fit your established lifestyles. Begin by loosening up a little when working with each other on your proposed custody plan. Be cautious with the way you characterize your roles: each of you are undeniably a parent and you are preparing a parenting plan. Avoid primary/secondary, custodial/noncustodial and custody/visitation distinctions as much as possible. Don’t lock yourself into a weekend/weekday schedule. Consider trying something a little different, such as Sunday morning through Wednesday evening with one parent, and the balance of the week with the other. Your children can in fact have two homes. You’ve done it!
Shared, joint and split custody all refer to variations on a theme in which each parent cares for the children one-third to one-half of the time, although each has its own nuances. Shared often infers that the non-custodial parent has the children thirty to forty percent of the time, with a primary parent identifiable in the custody plan. Joint invariably means approximately equal caretaking and equal responsibility for the children, requiring considerable flexibility and especially parents that can work together. Split usually indicates a fixed schedule, such as three days with one parent and four with the other every week, with nearly equal parental caring and responsibility. Our discussion will focus on joint custody—the most idealistic and furthest removed from traditional custody plans ordered by the courts.
In actual practice, joint custody often requires parents to cooperate more with their spouses after separation than they did during the marriage. You’ll have to work together to avoid schedule and discipline conflicts. You must be flexible enough to help the other parent out when needed, because there will be times when you’ll need the help yourself. You may want to include the rather common provision that you’ll give the other parent the first option to watch the children if you’ll be gone overnight. On the other hand, you may decide to prefer the use of babysitters when one of you out for just an evening. Working together, you’ll be far more involved in decisions about school, medical care, and extra activities such as band, sports and dating than you would if just one of you was a primary parent.
Build a solid record of involvement with your children from your first day of separation if you even think you might desire joint custody. Joint custody doesn’t just fall into place; if your spouse won’t agree, you’ll have to go to court. It’s too late if you really didn’t get to know your own children during the marriage, or learn how to care for them. Start now, of course, but don’t expect to automatically receive joint custody. One of the major considerations is parenting skill, and if you don’t have any just yet you’re in trouble. The court is concerned about your children’s best interests, not yours. The low expectations of many family law courts, based on experience with failed joint custody experiments, is another reason to remain realistic about your chances for joint custody—and to build a factual record to show why it should be given a chance in your case.
Irv wisely never permitted any interruption in the time that he spent with his children. His efforts paid off with an agreement giving him the children half the time. He arranged immediately on separation to have his children stay with him at his parents while he looked for a new place to live. He took his children to preschool before he went to work on mornings that they stayed with him. He picked them up when he had them again. When he rented a suitable place to live, the children were still part of his life and moved right in, half time, of course.
Don’t forget the economics of joint custody. Typical mandatory child support schedules assume that the children are with the non-custodial parent twenty percent of the time. If you have them more than that, no adjustment in child support will be made until, usually, your time exceeds thirty percent. Do the calculations for your local court schedule; if you are at twenty-eight percent, add a little time to your side and you’ll probably save hundreds of dollars every month.
The best way to end up with joint custody is to start with it. What if—as much as you want joint custody—nothing is going right? Assume for this example that your spouse wants to be the primary parent. You’ve tried, but can’t reach a compromise. Your attorney says that you do have a fair chance of getting joint custody. Act now! Your chances won’t get any better. Take an aggressive stance. A court hearing now for temporary custody pending a long-term custody order by settlement or trial will be relatively low key and less expensive than trial. You have a better chance of getting a joint custody order now, if you have the facts, than later. Some order must be made at this time because of the parents’ separation, and up until the time of the hearing the children have been living with you both. However, the same rule applies to primary custody: what the children have become comfortably accustomed to is likely to be continued.
What conditions are favorable for joint custody? An ideal joint custody situation would require each parent to have a room for their child, with all clothes, toys and other necessary items. Each of these parents would live in the same school district, and close enough to each other so their child could visit the same friends no matter which home he or she was at. The two parents would get along so well the child would hardly be aware there had been a divorce. No one is going to meet this ideal. Perfect joint custody situations after divorce are rare. But no one, not the legislature that makes the laws and not the court that interprets the laws, said you had to be perfect.
Many situations within your reach are quite suitable for joint custody. The most important factor is the ability of the parents to work together. Rooms and toys and clothes and transportation are all secondary to the desire of the parents to make it work. A parent opposed to joint custody has the power to stifle it because this opposition alone means joint custody won’t work. However, this same sabotaging parent runs the risk in exercising this power that he or she will be seen to be "less likely to share the child with the other parent" and thus end up being the secondary parent under a traditional plan. Thus, the parent seeking joint custody just might be rewarded with far more, namely primary custody.
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How to Win Child Custody
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