A number of states are moving toward some form of “shared” or “joint” custody as a baseline when determining parental arrangements after divorce. In other states, these may be arrangements that a judge decides upon or which parents agree to. Either way, the trend is toward some kind of shared parenting arrangement. But it might not be the right thing for every family. Here’s a rundown on what’s happening across the country and some things you might want to consider when figuring out the custody arrangement you plan to seek.
One major trend right now is states passing laws that actually set joint custody as the standard. For example, Missouri is currently considering a new law which would make 50-50 parenting time the starting point in all custody cases. Of course, this isn’t absolute. The law would set a “rebuttable presumption” that equal parenting time is the best arrangement for the kids, which means that if a parent opposes a 50-50 arrangement he or she can challenge the presumption through evidence.
The idea behind this bill is to take gender bias out of the system and create a more level playing field for fathers, many of whom claim they haven’t been given a fair shake in the courts. The proposed law is also intended to provide a benefit for children. Proponents point to studies that show kids are much better off when both parents are as involved in their lives as possible. About a dozen other states have laws like this already, though they may vary (for example, they may not all define “joint custody” as a 50-50 split). In all those states, the law only becomes an issue when parents can’t agree.
Other states, like Alabama, Connecticut, California, Mississippi and Nevada, have a presumption in favor of joint custody if both parents agree to it, but judges can order joint custody even if the parents don’t agree if that’s what the judge thinks is in the child’s best interest. Some states don’t have a presumption that favors joint custody, but it’s an option judge can use at their discretion.
The issue over joint custody is also complicated by definitions. A lot of people think “joint” and “shared” custody means the same thing. But “joint” physical custody refers to where the child physically spends his or her time, while “joint” legal custody refers to which parent gets to make important decisions about the child. When people talk about “shared” custody, on the other hand, they’re usually talking about where the child spends his/her time.
Some people criticize the trend toward a presumption of joint physical custody, arguing that it may have a negative impact on kids, who bounce back and forth between “Mom’s house” and “Dad’s house” without developing a true sense of home anywhere. They say joint custody can be stressful for kids, who have to keep track of important possessions and clothes as they move back and forth, and point to all the time spent in transit when the parents don’t live close to one another.
Still, joint custody arrangements can truly benefit kids by having both parents involved in their lives, which leads to better-adjusted kids in the long run. If you’re looking at a potential joint custody relationship, either because of a legal presumption in its favor or because you think it will create the best situation for your children, the following tips will increase your chances of success:
- Don’t undermine the other parent.
Try to work out your differences about your kids’ health, education, rules, activities, etc., and maintain a united front. Consistent rules and policies create stability for your children. That doesn’t mean you should feel free to impose all your ideas on the other parent and seek to micromanage what happens when your kids are with him or her. While it’s important to have broad agreements on major issues, it’s probably a bad idea to create huge issues over your ex giving your kids a little more screen time or occasionally letting them eat fast food. That’s just going to create tension and resentment that filters down.
- Don’t bad-mouth the other parent to the world.
You may not particularly like the other parent, but keep that to yourself and maybe a few adult confidantes. Don’t air out your grievances in public, especially on social media. That will create hostility that impacts your kids and it will hurt you if you want to go back to court to change your custody arrangement, since old posts are easily retrievable.
- Don’t bad-mouth the other parent to your kids.
Their dad is still their dad (and their mom is still their mom) whether that makes you happy or not. Speaking badly of him or her, particularly when the kids spend half their time with that person, can cause harm. Either it will undermine their relationship with the other parent, which could cause them to resent you in the long run once they figure out what’s happened, or it’ll undermine their relationship with you because you’re saying bad things about someone they love. Everyone benefits when you can rise above the situation and encourage loving, healthy relationships with both parents.