Perhaps one of the most difficult things that parents must grapple with when the decision is made to divorce is accepting that they no longer have the opportunity to spend every day with their children. Factoring in the need for children to attend school and the hours devoted to sleep, coupled with work commitments, there is a pretty finite period of time that us parents get to spend with our children. Throw in extra-curricular activities and the available time is further limited. Now, make it all take place in two homes and that is the puzzle that must be solved with each divorce involving children.
For purposes of this conversation, I organize the custody issues into five categories: (1) Legal Custody (2) Regular Child Sharing Schedule (3) Holiday Schedule (4) Vacation Provisions, and (5) Other standard terms. There are a number of legal considerations that a Judge is directed to consider when making custody and visitation orders, but at the center of it all is a directive to make orders that are in the best interest of the children.
Legal Custody Legal custody involves the right to participate in decision making involving the medical needs, the educational needs, and the social needs of the children. It includes the right to speak with doctors, have access to medical records, and the right to be involved with important decisions involving the health and medical care of the children. It also includes the right to speak with teachers, access school records and be involved with decisions about where the children will attend school. Couples typically share legal custody unless there is a strong reason not to such as when there has been domestic violence, when a parent has a drug or alcohol issue impacting their ability to make sound decisions, or when there is such conflict between the parents that they are incapable of working together to make these important decisions.
Regular Child Sharing Schedule The regular child sharing schedule is often referred to as physical custody and visitation. It addresses when each parent has the right to be with the children and the responsibility to be caring for the children. This schedule may identify a primary parent with whom the children will spend a majority of their time, or it may involve an equal sharing schedule, or joint physical custody where the children will spend half their time with each parent. Some big considerations when setting up the regular sharing schedule is setting something up that assures the needs of the children will be met, that allows the children to develop and maintain their relationship with both parents, considers parent availability given work and other commitments, and considers the safety and well being of the children. It is typically a good idea to make a detailed schedule to assure clarity of responsibility and to provide a road map for the sharing. This detailed schedule will not stand in the way of flexibility if it makes sense to shift the sharing schedule and the couple agrees to do so.
Holiday Schedule During holiday times the schedule will typically move away from the regular schedule to a more specific one focused on providing each parent with an opportunity to spend quality holiday time with the children. If the parents are in the same area some of the main holidays are split between the parents. A good example is Christmas where there might be an alternating schedule where in even years one parent has the children from Christmas Eve at noon until Christmas Day at noon and the other parent has Christmas Day at noon until the next day at noon. In odd years this schedule might reverse allowing each parent to experience different parts of the holiday depending on the year. Some holidays, such as Thanksgiving, might be alternated allowing for the designated parent to put more focus on the celebration or to allow for traveling to spend the holiday with other family. The scheduling can include various religious holidays depending upon the family beliefs/practices. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and parent’s birthdays are typically spent with the celebrated parent. Three day holidays often will extend the weekend of whichever parent has the children. Each couple can build a sharing schedule that best suits the family.
Vacation Time Independent of the regular schedule and holiday schedule, is the right of each parent to schedule a traveling vacation to spend extended, usually out of town, time with the children. A typical custody schedule might provide each parent with up to two or three weeks of opportunity vacation with the children. The order might provide that a parent seeking to schedule a vacation provide a 30 day advanced notice of dates of travel, destination, emergency contact information with the limitation that it is not to be scheduled during the other parent’s holiday time unless there is agreement to do so. The time allotted is cumulative such that it can be broken down into a week here and a week there. If something comes up such as a death in the family or some other more spontaneous opportunity, there would just need to be agreement between the parties if a 30 day notice cannot be timely delivered.
Other Standard Terms There are a number of other standard provisions to a custody schedule. Some common ones include reasonable phone contacts for the non-custodial parent, keeping each other apprised of addresses and notifying immediately upon any move, and an admonishment not to speak negatively about the other parent in the presence of the children or inappropriately involve the children in adult issues. There will typically be a provision that requires an agreement or Court order to move the residence of the children out of the County. There are directives that prevent a parent from scheduling activities for the children during the other parent’s time unless there is agreement. There can also be a right of first refusal that requires the custodial parent to provide the other parent with the first opportunity to provide care for the children when the custodial parent will not be available to provide the care for an agreed upon length of time. There are a variety of other terms that can be adopted to provide clarity on sharing of responsibilities, outlining avenues of communication, and providing expectations related to important aspects of shared parenting.
The relationships that our children have with us is very important in their development. It is not the children that have decided upon the divorce and they should not be made to suffer for the adult decisions we make. Children are resilient and when the parents can work together to craft a sharing schedule and other custodial terms that put the best interests of the children at the forefront, we are doing them a great service. What is best for each family and each child may vary. Giving children the opportunity to continue to grow their relationship with each of their parents, providing them with consistency and stability, and assuring that their daily needs are met are at the center of our work in crafting lasting and healthy custody schedules.