For those looking at divorce in the near future, a significant number may also be wondering about the potential custody arrangement for your children. As aBirmingham family law and divorce attorney, I've lent my shoulder to many a parent, but it's the kids that make this job tough. Last week I explained legal custody and joint custody. Right now, I'll pick up with sole and joint custody to round things out.
In this scenario, one parent can have either sole legal custody or sole physical custody of a child. In many states, divorce courts are moving away from awarding sole custody to one parent and toward increasing the role a divorced father plays in his children's lives. Even when courts do grant sole physical custody, it is common for both parents to share joint legal custody, with the non-custodial parent enjoying a generous visitation schedule.
With this arrangement, the parents make joint decisions about the child's upbringing, with one parent deemed the primary physical caretaker and the other granted visitation rights. Courts hardly ever hesitate to grant sole physical custody to one parent if the other is deemed unfit — this can include instances of drug or alcohol abuse, when the other parent has a new partner who is unfit for similar reasons, or if there are charges of child abuse or neglect.
I've seen many cases where one or the other spouse harbors a great deal of animosity toward the other, but believe me, it's wiser not to seek sole custody unless the other parent causes direct harm to the children. Even in such cases, the courts have been known to simply allow supervised visitation, while still ordering joint legal custody.
Also known as shared custody, joint custody is reserved for parents who don't live together but who share the decision-making responsibilities for, and/or physical control and custody of, their children. Joint custody can exist if the parents are divorced, separated, or no longer cohabiting, or even if they never lived together in the first place. Joint custody can be legal, physical or both.
It is common for couples who share physical custody to also share legal custody, but not necessarily the other way around. And when parents share joint custody, they usually create a schedule based on their work and housing arrangements as well as the children's needs. If the parents cannot agree on a schedule, the court will impose an arrangement.
In this case, a common pattern is for children to split weeks between each parent's house or apartment. Other joint physical custody arrangements include alternating months, years, or six-month periods; or spending weekends and holidays with one parent, while spending weekdays with the other.
Joint custody allows kids to have more continuous contact and involvement with both parents, plus it also spreads out the burdens of parenting to each party. Like anything in life, there are always disadvantages, such as:
- Shuttling the children around can be costly and time-consuming
- Any potential parental non-cooperation or ill will can have seriously negative effects on the kids
- Maintaining two homes for the children can be expensive
One thing to keep in mind regarding joint custody is to keep detailed and organized financial records of all your expenses. Keep your receipts for groceries, school supplies and items for after-school activities, clothing, and medical care. The reason for this is simple. It is possible that some ex-spouses may claim they spent more money on the kids than you have — keep in mind that a judge will appreciate the fact that you maintained detailed records.
Bird's Nest Custody
One variation on joint custody is the so-called “bird's nest custody.” This custody arrangement allows the children to remain in one residence year-round, while the parents take turns moving in and out, spending their own individual visitation time with the kids on their home turf, while maintaining separate housing elsewhere. The expense of a third house may preclude this type of arrangement for most people, but I include it here as just one more option. I can provide more help and suggestions, so if you would like a free initial consultation, please contact us anytime.