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.

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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.


How Mediation Can Help – Even When Divorce Litigation Is Pending

June 10, 2014

Divorce-MediaitonIf you are engaged in divorce, you may be battling your case in the traditional attorney-run court system. If this is your situation, but you yearn for a more civilized, less expensive method of settling your divorce matters, you can consider Mediation at any time in the process.

I see clients and settle cases at all stages of the separation and divorce process. For example:

  • Mediation works well in cases where attorneys are never involved;
  • Mediation works well in cases where attorneys are consulted prior to the mediation, but are not involved in the mediation process;
  • Mediation works well when attorney services are utilized only for review of the draft Settlement Agreement; and
  • Mediation works well when clients are deeply involved in litigation, but want to come up for air and try and settle their case in a more orderly, less contentious fashion.

Most clients don’t know that Virginia attorneys are required to advise their clients that there are alternative methods to resolve their disputes outside of litigation. (This mandate is pursuant to the Comment Section of Virginia Supreme Court Rule 1.2.) If your divorce attorney has not advised of you that there are Virginia Supreme Court Mediators ready to assist you with your divorce settlement needs, ask him or her if there is any reason why Mediation, or any other form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), is not appropriate for your circumstances.

Certain situations merit consideration of “taking a break” from litigation. You may wish to consider Mediation if:

  • Litigation is doing harm to your children.
  • Litigation is causing emotional turmoil and an inability to focus.
  • There is a need to feel that all “friendly” avenues were tried before either of you “pull the trigger” in court (and unleash a torrent of bad feelings that may last a lifetime);
  • You think if would be a good idea to treat the property and debt issues completely separate from the child-related issues.
  • You and your attorney no longer see eye to eye;
  • There is one single issue that is holding up the entire settlement;
  • Your attorney fees feel like the National Debt.

If you think Mediation is the way to go, give Robin Graine, JD, at Graine Mediation, a call: 571-220-1998. If you just want to learn more about Mediation, or if you want to discuss whether Mediation is right for your case, give Graine Mediation a call. Robin would be happy to answer you questions: 571-220-1998.

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.


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