Age Appropriate Child Custody Arrangements

March 21, 2017

Age Appropriate Child Custody ArrangementsWhen it comes to setting a custodial care plan for children of divorcing parents, there is no end to controversy with regard to what is best. Decision-makers, influencers, researchers and clinicians differ a great deal when it comes recommending the ideal parenting arrangements in a divorce situation.

What all experts do agree on, however, is that children do best when their parents get along well and the children feel that they are being parented together by both mom and dad, as a team.

This handout is not intended to be fully comprehensive, nor is it intended to pre-determine what is best for your child or children. It is, however, a compilation of recent research and conclusions that I have read and heard time and again over the many years that I have been in the family law and mediation field.

Please know, however, that these findings are not necessarily representative of what is going on in the courts. Instead, these findings are more representative of what neuroscientists, human development experts and psychologists are finding to be true about the effect of various parenting arrangements on children of divorce.

When establishing a custodial care plan for your child, it is important to customize a plan that best fits your child’s present needs, bolsters his or her sense of security, as well as helps in the development of the relationship skills for now and the future.

When crafting your parenting arrangements, many clinicians will tell you that children do not count days or hours. They count quality of time. Bickering over make-up time and ensuring a quantifiable 50/50 split, for example, does little to assist your child in becoming a happy, emotionally healthy and balanced human being. They will remember the squabbling; not the number of days missed with Mom or Dad.

They count on whether or not they feel that their parents are always be there for them, without fighting and harsh words to each other, and whether their home life feels somewhat “normal” in relationship to their friends and neighbors.

Infants & Toddlers (0 -2.5 Years):

Infancy is a time for building attachments. Without strong attachments, a child will grow up to have difficulty bonding with and forming relationships with other people. Another primary developmental task for infants is to form trust in the environment, which requires consistency in both the caretaker and the baby’s home.

  • Only about a quarter of an infant’s brain is developed at birth. The actual structure of a baby’s brain is formed in large part as a result of his/her human relationships.
  • Many experts believe that there should be a primary caretaker. This is because infants and toddlers cannot maintain the image of their primary caretaker for long and this can cause extreme stress and confusion to a baby or toddler, who may already have outside caretakers in his or her life (such as daycare, nannies).
  • Many experts believe that the mother is the best choice for the role of primary caretaker. This has to do with the theory that a mother’s brain is better wired to help an infant develop his/her ability to regulate and cope. This is related to the fact that an infant’s right brain (which reacts to deep primitive feelings) is more developed at birth than the left (thinking) side. In other words, many experts believe that mothers have a better innate capacity to” tune in” to infants than do fathers. This comes from new neuroscientific research and is not necessarily accepted by other disciplines or the courts.
  • It is essential that babies and toddlers have frequent time with the noncustodial parent in order for them to bond with that parent—which will be essential when that baby grows into a preschooler. 

Preschoolers (2.5 – 5 Years):

This is a time of continued growth and individuality. This is typically the age where time away from the primary caretaker should increase, and overnights with the noncustodial parent are recommended to become more frequent and regularized (if the child is being raised in a primary-caretaker style).

Some parents begin 50/50 custody at this age. This type of arrangement needs to be carefully considered in terms of the child’s personality, how well the parents get along and how close the parents live to one another.

  • As preschool-aged children start becoming more and more curious about their physical world, many experts believe that lots of time with their fathers is essential to help their preschoolers explore, take risks and investigate their body’s relationship to their environment
  • Preschoolers’ have much greater development of the left side of their brain than do infants and toddlers. This makes it easier for fathers to “tune in” to their children. Fathers and toddlers, some believe, are “wired” to be together and this is the time when the lack of a father can be hard on children in terms of meeting their development needs.

Children (6-8):
This period of development is focused on peer and community relationships. It is important during this stage of development for the noncustodial parent (if that is the parenting arrangements) to be part of the activities that his or her children are involved in. At this stage, children thrive on consistent contact with friends, school, and extra-curricular activities.

  • In non 50/50 custody arrangements, many experts believe that the parenting plans should include multiple overnight visits per-week with the noncustodial parent.
  • However, if a child is distressed by being away from the other parent, it is recommended that the time away should be decreased to a tolerable level, at least for a period of time.
  • If a child tolerates the stress of living in two homes, however, this can be best in terms of his or her opportunity to form strong bonds with both parents.
  • Time spent in your child’s “orbit” is important. Children at this age are watching everything you do. More often than not, children learn more by being around you and seeing how you handle life than they do from what you try and teach them directly.

Pre-Teens (9-12):

During these years, children develop their academic, athletic, and artistic skills. The noncustodial parent (if that is the parents’ arrangement) is advised to schedule time with their child, as much as possible, within the orbit of the child’s home base. In 50/50 custody situations, children still tend to have a “home base” — in terms of schools, activities, friends and where they feel most “at home” — and the other parent will need to develop a comfort level with spending time where the child has built his or her world.

  • Parent-child time needs to allow for the pre-teen’s social life, academics, sports and other extracurricular activities.
  • Parents often find themselves more of a “chauffeur” than a parent at this stage of their child’s life; but driving your children to their various activities is often a good time to talk and share. Volunteer for carpools – you will learn a lot about your children’s friends this way and also get to know the other parents in your children’s circle.
  • It is important for both parents to maintain a strong role in their pre-teen’s life. This fosters a healthy and lasting relationship with both parents. Strong parental bonds are key to a child’s ability to form relationships with others, both now and throughout their lives.

Teenagers (13-18):

This period marks the beginning of psychological emancipation as children rapidly begin establishing their personal identify. Though parents are usually settled into a routine of care for their child at this age, that may change as these teenage children seek to have input into their parenting arrangements. The priorities for these young people are their social lives, academics, and their extracurricular activities. Spending quality time with Mom or Dad is not on their minds, like it may be for their parents. The pressure of having to make space in their busy lives for “quality time” with two parents, in two separate homes, may be a source of irritation and resentment for your busy teenager. Creativity is key at this time in order to stay in tune with your child, while at the same time respecting his or her need to grow-up.

  • The custodial care schedule will need to be flexible in order to work with the teenager’s complex schedule.
  • It is important to consider the teenager’s need for his or her own agenda, as this is a part of maturing and establishing independence.
  • It is important to stay involved in the teenager’s activities such as academics, sports, arts, etc. This is important in order to maintain a healthy relationship with your teenager, show that you care, and know the people who your child is spending time with.

Posted by Robin Graine, JD, Virginia Supreme Court Certified Mediator

This blog and its materials have been prepared by Graine Mediation for informational purposes only and are not intended to be, are not, and should not be regarded as, legal advice.  This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.  Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.


Child Custody In a Virgina Divorce: Legal Custody & Physical Custody Defined

June 9, 2015

child custodyWhen discussing various parenting arrangements with clients and prospective clients, I have learned that most people who are in the midst of a divorce/separation, or are contemplating such an event, make similar mistakes when it comes to Virginia “custody terminology”.

Such vocabulary faux pas are hardly indicative of a parent’s heartfelt desire to spend time with his or her child.  However, it is usually helpful to clients when they begin to get a handle on how the Commonwealth of Virginia goes about assigning labels in the context of divorce and co-parenting.  (Co-parenting refers to any situation when two parents are raising a child, in two separate households, whether or not those parents were ever married).

Of course, your mediator or divorce lawyer should certainly be able to figure out what you mean – no matter how you phrase it – when it comes to your desires for your child’s future parenting arrangements.  Not all mediators or divorce lawyers, however, do a good at explaining legal terminology.  The same goes for clients’ ability to absorb and process information in such a stressful and confusing time.

As a result, I have seen plenty of post decree (after divorce) situations where basic misunderstandings of the custody terms in the parties’ Final Order of Divorce (aka Divorce Decree) kept them fighting about their child several years after their separation and divorce.

To help alleviate this unfortunate and rampant misinformation about various custody terms in Virginia child custody cases, here is my “Virginia Custody Dictionary.”

Legal Custody:

Determines which parent has the right to make major decisions concerning their child.  Legal custody has nothing to do with where the child lives.

There are two types of Legal Custody:

    (1) Joint Legal Custody –  

        Major decisions must be agreed to by the parents.

    (2) Sole Legal Custody –

        Major decisions need only be made by the parent who is granted Sole Legal Custody.

  • The term “Legal Custody” is not intuitive to most people and problems often arise, down the road from when the settlement agreement is signed/Court order is entered, over the parents’ often diametrically opposite interpretation of the term “major decisions”.
  • Mediators encourage clients to jointly define the term “major decisions,” as part of the settlement of the custody issues in their particular case, to help save them from possible trouble down the road.
  • On the other hand, divorce lawyers tend not to focus on crafting an agreed client-interpretation of the term “major decisions”. Instead, they leave it up to the Courts to decide, should there be a problem in the future, whether a decision made, or to be made, by a parent is, in fact, “major”.  Ultimately, the Courts do have final decision-making power; but, a meeting of minds between parents is usually enough to end bitter battles before they start.
  • Examples of “Major Decisions” – Those decisions which are generally agreed by divorce lawyers and courts to be “major decisions”:
  1. Which school the child will attend;
  2. Whether the child will be required to undergo an elective medical procedure (e.g. plastic surgery on a scar);
  3. Whether braces will be placed on a child’s teeth for purely cosmetic reasons;
  4. Whether a child will be required to engage in psychotherapy;
  5. Who will be the child’s substitute caretaker necessary for the parents to earn a living (known as “work related childcare”, aka WRCC); and
  6. Choice of sleep-away camps.
  • Examples of “Gray Area Decisions” – Where decisions may or may not be considered “major”:
  1. Which week or two-week long camp a child will attend in the summer (not sleep-away camps);
  2. Which extracurricular activities a child will participate in during that parent’s custodial care time.
  3. Whether a child will participate in a specialized academic program during school hours (remedial or enhanced learning);
  4. Whether a child will participate in various in-school clubs, groups and activities;
  5. Choice of classes (middle school and high school);
  6. Choice of basic disciplinary techniques;
  7. Choice of how much to give a child for allowance/spending money; and
  8. Choice of vacation destinations with children (within reason);
  9. Choice of children’s playmates.

Physical Custody:

Determines where the child will live and the amount of time the child will spend with each parent.

Physical custody pertains to which parent (sometimes both, sometimes only one) has the primary responsibility for the care and control of the child on a given day.

  • Day to day decisions, of a routine nature, are made by the parent with whom the child is being cared for on that day.

 

Sole Physical Custody:

  • In Sole Physical Custody situations, that parent is granted all (or almost all) of the custodial care rights and responsibilities for the child.
  • The other parent is not usually involved in day-in-and-day-out responsibilities that come with raising a child.
  • The other parent is usually permitted “visitation” with his or her child (except in cases where that parent would present a danger to the child);
  • In Virginia, even in cases where one of the parents is granted Sole Physical Custody, the other parent still has the legal right to review the child’s medical and academic records (with exceptions);
  • To add to the confusion, when calculating Virginia Child Support Guideline Obligations, the “regular” calculation is called the “Sole Child Support Calculation”.  This poorly named calculation simply means that the non Primary Custodian cares for the children fewer than 91 days per year,2  even though the caretaking duties may clearly be shared between the parents.
  • Advocating for the denial of a parent to be involved in major decisions concerning his or her child is serious. It generally means that there is something very wrong with one or both of the parents’ ability to care for the child and/or use sound judgment when making decisions concerning the child.
  • In cases where one or both of the parents thinks that a child should have no or very little custodial care time with the other parent, it is often advisable that those parents litigate (hire a divorce attorney) and not mediate their cases.

Shared Physical Custody:

  • In Shared Physical Custody situations, it is presumed that both parents are involved, to a much greater extent than in a “Sole Custody” situation, in the day-in-and-day-out responsibilities that come with raising a child.
  • However, Shared Physical Custody does not, necessarily, mean 50/50.  It does, however, mean that there is a discernible sharing of parental caretaking duties for the child.
  • The term “Shared Physical Custody” is not clearly defined in Virginia law in terms of custody and parenting arrangements.
  • To add to the confusion, when calculating Virginia Child Support Guideline Obligations, there is a special calculation available for situations where a “non-primary custodian” cares for a child 91 or greater days per year.  That calculation is called the “Shared Child Support Calculation.” The Virginia Shared Child Support Calculation is able to accommodate various ratios of caretaking duties (e.g. 50/50 custody, 60/40 custody, etc.).

Primary Physical Custody:

  • The parent who is the “Primary Physical Custodian” is usually the parent who cares for the child greater than 50% of the time.
  • The term “Primary Physical Custodian,” however, is not well-defined in Virginia law.  There are situations where parents have less than a 50/50 custody share (exp. 60/40, 70/30), but where a settlement agreement/Court Order show that the custodial care plan is “Shared Custody” (even though there is, by most standards, a “primary parent”).
  • Some divorce attorneys are concerned that a judge may allow a parent, who is referred to as the “Primary Custodian,” in the settlement agreement/Court Order, to have more potential influence in possible future battles involving the child (e.g., moving away with the child).
  • If a parent is referred to in a settlement agreement/Court Order as the “primary custodian,” a school district may defer to that document when determining which school a child should attend.  (See previous Blog article: https://fairfaxdivorceblog.com/?s=prince+william )

In certain situations, and if there is no tax planning as part of the parties’ settlement, The IRS automatically awards certain child-related tax benefits to the “Custodial Parent”.  The IRS does not use the term “Primary Parent”.  The “Custodial Parent,” in terms of tax law, is the parent who cares for the child greater than 50% of the time during that tax year.  If the settlement agreement/Court Order conflicts with the actual caretaking schedule, this could present a problem if both parents wish to claim the child as their dependent exemption. This is not a problem, however, if parents insure that the settlement agreement/ Court Order matches their actual caretaking activities and if they make sure that tax planning is a part of their settlement (as it should be). (See previous Blog article https://fairfaxdivorceblog.com/?s=tax+custody )

This blog and its materials have been prepared by Graine Mediation for informational purposes only and are not intended to be, are not, and should not be regarded as, legal advice.  This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.  Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.


Divorce Lawyers Vs. Divorce Mediators: How They Approach Child Custody

May 26, 2015

istock_000018888305small300Parents who divorce are faced with many decisions about how their children will be cared for post-separation.  Divorce attorneys and divorce mediators have different approaches when helping clients formulate custodial care plans.

Divorce attorneys often focus on:

(1) The type of custody a client wants for him or herself (e.g. sole custody, primary custody); and

(2) Winning that custody for the client through strategic legal maneuvering and traditional bargaining tactics.

Divorce mediators tend to focus on:

(1) Formulating mutually agreeable parenting arrangements that are best suited to the child’s needs; and

(2) Assigning “legal labels” (e.g. primary custody, shared custody) to the the parenting arrangements only after the custody decisions are determined.

 

KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR CHILD CUSTODY DECISION MAKING

Until parties truly understand how their children will process and handle their parents’ divorce, child custody decisions need to be approached with great caution and sensitivity to the child’s basic need for:

(1) affection from both parents;

(2) bonding time with both parents;

(3) enough time to experience both parents’ influence and role modeling;

(4) routine and structure; and

(5) a sense of rootedness (home, school, community).

 

WHY CHOOSE A DIVORCE MEDIATOR?

  •  Child Centered.  Divorce Mediation is child-centered and consists, primarily, of neutral facilitation of parents’ discussions and creative problem solving.  
  • No Games. There are no games or intimidation tactics that are usually employed by divorce lawyers.
  • Confidential. Everything in mediation is confidential.  This allows parents, without the concern of “blowing their legal strategy”, to speak freely and honestly.
  • Everything on the table. Mediation encourages comprehensive conversations about their child and how best to parent him or her in the unsurprisingly complex two-home structure necessitated by divorce.
  • Cooperation. Mediators are skilled at nurturing cooperation between parents.
  • Perspective. In mediation, parents are usually able to see disputed custody issues from various perspectives.  Usually, both parents have good ideas to share.
  • Information & Knowledge. Experienced mediators have practical information and empirical knowledge to help clients make decisions on behalf of their child that both parents are comfortable with.

WHEN IS IT BEST TO CHOOSE A DIVORCE ATTORNEY OVER A DIVORCE MEDIATOR

  • Abuse. Where there is a history of child abuse (physical or sexual) or domestic violence, parties are usually better off having the protection of the Courts and a divorce lawyer right from the start.  
  • Not living in reality.  Parents who are mentally ill or have a personality disorder such that they cannot distinguish reality from fantasy are not good candidates for mediation.  They need a divorce lawyer to advocate on their behalf.
  • Punishment. Parents who are adamant that they want their child’s other parent punished – and believe that the Courts will do that for them (which they almost always do not do) – need to hire a lawyer.  Mediation is not punishment-oriented.
  • Need to win.  Some parties need to win.  Cooperation and mutually agreeable decision-making is not for everyone.  Parties who believe they are dead “right” with regard to what is best for their child in every way, and that the other parent is “wrong” on those matters, need to hire a divorce attorney.  Most mediators don’t think in terms of “winning” when it comes to children.

CHOOSING A MEDIATOR STYLE

There are as many styles of mediation as there are mediators.  If you choose mediation as your method of determining the parenting arrangements for your child post separation/divorce, make sure you are comfortable with the mediator’s approach and style.  Talk with him or her a while before committing to your first mediation session.  Ask questions.  A good mediator will be happy to ensure that both parents are comfortable with the process and that the personalities make a good fit before setting the first session date.

This blog and its materials have been prepared by Graine Mediation for informational purposes only and are not intended to be, are not, and should not be regarded as, legal advice.  This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.  Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.


What the Judge Sees: Child Custody and Visitation

August 20, 2013

No one has it easy as a marriage comes to an end.  But things become even more complicated – and the potential for immense emotional pain only grows – when a child is involved.

Our legal system has set up standards that remove the emotion from custody decisions. The judge is expected to act in the best interests of the child as that judge perceives the situation.  So, if your hope is to persuade your judge to protect your child as you would like, you need to know the criteria all Virginia judges must use when making their decision.

Have a look at the code, and let’s discuss the ten provisions your judge will be using to determine your case:

§ 20-124.3. Best interests of the child; visitation.judge

In determining best interests of a child for purposes of determining custody or visitation arrangements the court shall consider the following:

1. The age and physical and mental condition of the child, giving due consideration to the child’s changing developmental needs;

-This is exactly the kind of calm and reasoned assessment you want when a judge is considering where your child will be living and how much time the other parent will have to spend with that child. It is to be applauded.  But, you know better than anyone else what your child needs – so talk with your lawyer if you believe the strength of your relationship with your child is less easily observed by outside viewers and needs pointing out.

2. The age and physical and mental condition of each parent;

-If you’re worried that your spouse might harm your child (and fears of neglect or a parent’s  incapacity to care for a child are just as legitimate as fears of abuse or the presence of addiction), then speak up.  Tell your lawyer your concerns.  This is the time, but be careful that these potentially harmful behaviors are not turned towards the one pointing the finger, too.

3. The relationship existing between each parent and each child, giving due consideration to the positive involvement with the child’s life, the ability to accurately assess and meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of the child;

-This is the provision that notes who has put in the time in the raising of a child.  It makes room in the decision to honor the parent who focused on being the steady daily support in a child’s life, even when the other parent can show the judge a big salary and a large house.

4. The needs of the child, giving due consideration to other important relationships of the child, including but not limited to siblings, peers and extended family members;

-You can see how hard the State is trying to act in your child’s best interest; they are looking beyond the relationship that you and your spouse have with your child.  Your judge will try to ensure that all the influences in your child’s life are taken into account.  It is not a sign of weakness to tell your lawyer if you have a strong support network to help you raise your son or daughter; the court will appreciate knowing you have help and that your child will have loving support in addition to you. If you have concerns about members of your spouse’s family or other network, bring those up, too.

5. The role that each parent has played and will play in the future, in the upbringing and care of the child;

-By law, your judge has to look past what is best for your child today and consider what will be best for your child throughout his or her childhood.  That means, for example, that the physical closeness of a breast-feeding mother to her infant will not necessarily determine custody of the child once he or she is weaned.  Present your case for custody accordingly.

6. The propensity of each parent to actively support the child’s contact and relationship with the other parent, including whether a parent has unreasonably denied the other parent access to or visitation with the child;

-If you have ever kept your child away from your spouse, it’s going to come up in the case – so make sure your lawyer knows why you took that action.  If you acted to protect your child, the judge can take that into account.

7. The relative willingness and demonstrated ability of each parent to maintain a close and continuing relationship with the child, and the ability of each parent to cooperate in and resolve disputes regarding matters affecting the child;

-Your judge will be looking for two things here: the parent who is prepared to remain an ongoing part of a child’s life even if he or she does not get full custody; and the parent who demonstrates the greatest ability to act cooperatively to protect and care for the child.  A divorce is an emotional roller coaster and your nerve endings are raw – but show the judge you can at least be civil to the person you’re divorcing and the judge will be more likely to ensure that both mother and father remain a part of your child’s life.

8. The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of reasonable intelligence, understanding, age and experience to express such a preference;

-The idea that your child might choose your spouse over you—and your child’s possible anguish over having to voice such opinion—seems brutal.  But this provision will be used carefully; your child may never be asked for his or her opinion.  It will only happen when the judge thinks a discussion with your child will be helpful.  Don’t panic if it happens; most people would advise you not to coach your child, either, but we all know that this is done every day. If you believe your spouse is influencing your child’s testimony, tell your lawyer.

9. Any history of family abuse as that term is defined in § 16.1-228 or sexual abuse. If the court finds such a history, the court may disregard the factors in subdivision 6; and

-If you know of or suspect abuse of your child, that is probably already a part of your case.  If the alleged abuse is substantiated by evidence, a judge may disregard the non-abusing  parent’s unwillingness to allow contact with the other parent when determining matters of custody.  Abusers do not have the same rights as normal parents. Again, the Code of Virginia provision is a live link; click on it to read.

10. Such other factors as the court deems necessary and proper to the determination.

-This is the “just in case” provision.  If the judge sees something that he or she feels is important to consider, but that is not covered by the first nine provisions, it is within his or her rights to consider additional factors in the custody decision…and rightly so.  You want the best for your child; so does the state of Virginia.

The judge shall communicate to the parties the basis of the decision either orally or in writing. Except in cases of consent orders for custody and visitation, this communication shall set forth the judge’s findings regarding the relevant factors set forth in this section.

-By law, the process has to be transparent; you’re entitled to know why your judge decided as he or she did.  And, remember, matters concerning minor children are never closed.  If you feel that you have repaired whatever was found lacking in terms of your parenting skills, if you “lost” a “custody battle”, you are almost always permitted to re-petition for a review of that order and show the judge that things have changed and that it would be in the best interest of your children for a change in the custodial care arrangements to be ordered.

If you are going through this type of litigation, we know that it is one of the most painful processes in modern life.  A divorce with custody issues leaves everyone angry, frightened, and anxious.  Remember to take a deep breath, be kind to yourself, and work to protect and love your child.

Posted by Prudence Bovee, Guest Writer

This blog and its materials have been prepared by Graine Mediation for informational purposes only and are not intended to be, are not, and should not be regarded as, legal advice.  This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.  Internet subscribers and online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.


%d bloggers like this: