As you begin to establish the parameters of your divorce agreement, it is highly recommended to talk to an attorney for legal advice before you sign any binding agreement. Legal and physical custody of your children is important to understand, and what you agree to now is going to stick unless there are significant material changes that warrant a custody modification. Make sure that you understand your custody agreement and that the visitation schedule will work for you and the children in the long term.
Understanding Joint Custody
Custody can be joint legal and joint physical, in which both parties share all responsibilities of the children equally. Joint legal and physical custody:
- Divides parenting time roughly in half
- Allows both parents to make decisions for the children together
- Both parents are financially responsible for the children
Joint Legal Custody – Sole Physical Custody
Parents can also share joint legal custody, but one parent may have sole physical custody. This is an arrangement developed for a number of reasons. With joint legal custody, both parents are meant to share in all of the decisions for the children equally.
The parent who has sole physical custody may be the primary residence of the children, even if the children spend a significant amount of time with the other parent every week.
This agreement could be used in a situation where one parent is unable to share in the financial burden of raising the children, and one makes a much bigger salary. If the two parties are constantly fighting over money, a judge might create this agreement to reduce the time the couple spends arguing post-divorce. In this arrangement, the parent who has more money will need to take care of child care costs, extra- curricular and medical needs, while receiving a small amount of child support from the parent who makes less money.
Sole legal and sole physical custody is an arrangement made when one parent is not able to take responsibility for the children in any way. This agreement might occur if a parent is incarcerated, or one simply takes off and leaves the other parent in charge of the children. If one parent is not stable, for example, if they are a substance abuser, the other parent may have sole legal and physical custody until they are able to stabilize their own behavior and be able to take care of the children responsibly.
Once you determine the type of custody you want, it’s important to talk with an attorney about other arrangements for the future such as whether your children will practice a religion, how holidays and special events will be handled, and how future custody adjustments could be made if the need arises. If you have further questions, it’s always useful to read Divorce in Peace, which covers child support and child custody in more detail.
Holiday Schedules and Special Events
One of the hardest parts of being divorced when you have children is how holidays and special events such as birthdays will be shared. If you and your former spouse have difficulty communicating, how holidays and birthdays will be handled will need to be spelled out for each of you to avoid conflict in the future. A sample holiday arrangement might read, “on odd number years, parent one has the children on Christmas Eve through Christmas morning at 11 am, while parent two has the children from Christmas morning at 11 am until the following day at noon, regardless of how regular visitation falls that week.” In addition, regarding birthdays, the agreement might read, “parent one has the children for their birthdays on odd numbered years, while parent two has the children for their birthdays on even numbered years.”
Negotiating Special Events
Special events may have to be negotiated when they arise. This is difficult when two parents have trouble compromising, regardless of how it will affect the children. For example, if one parent gets invited to a wedding where the children are asked to be in the wedding party, this would be a special event that has to be negotiated. When two parents are still angry after a divorce, it can be difficult to get one parent to agree to this arrangement.
While you cannot control the behavior of your ex-spouse, do not allow yourself to fall into this bitterness-trap. Remind yourself that the needs and happiness of the children comes first.
Don’t Let “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” Cause You Pain
When you have very young children, you will have to let go when the children are with the other parent and understand that they are enjoying their time. Most young children live in the moment, and they don’t want to engage in communication with the parent they are not with. While this can feel hurtful to the parent who misses the children, it is in their best interest to let them enjoy their time without worrying about the parent they aren’t with at the moment.
It’s hard to be a parent, and it’s even harder to be a parent when a divorce is involved. The best things to remember are that, when the children are with the other parent, you don’t have control over what goes on. It is your job to parent the children as best as you can when they are with you and focus on your work, home, and social life when they are not with you. Parenting through a divorce can only be done when you understand you are both vital to the development of your children.
Determine Rules for Staying Informed
If the relationship between parents isn’t amicable enough that daily or weekly conversations or updates are a practical option, it is a good idea to outline a plan that allows each parent to know what is happening while the children aren’t in their care.
In order to facilitate communication, templated “daily updates” may be something to put into place. These documents require the current custodial parent to give a daily/weekly update about things like:
- What the child ate
- If there were behavioral issues
- What activities they participated in
- If there was any conflict between the child and other children/adults
- If any extreme or out-of-the-ordinary discipline occurred
- And any other specifics or notes regarding things that the parent may need to be aware of
If your relationship remains friendly and/or civil, it’s a good idea to schedule a weekly call, lunch, or other “appointment” to catch up and make parenting decisions as a team.
Read the whole eBook, Dealing with Divorce: A Co-Parent’s Guide for free.