When filing for divorce, child custody can be the most emotional and potentially contentious of issues. Will you split custody 50/50 or will one of you have primary custody while the other has visitation on weekends? How will you agree on education and medical decisions?
These may seem like impossible questions with no answers. However difficult this may seem, know that many couples have been able to negotiate agreements that allow their family to move forward to a new life. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But with a good divorce mediator, you can customize your agreement to suit both parents, support your children, and plan for the future.
A good first step to take is to understand the options you have. If your ideas about custody start at Kramer vs. Kramer and end with A Marriage Story, there may be more modern and amicable paths to a custody agreement than you realize. Start by learning about the different types of custody agreements available.
Legal vs. physical custody
“Custody” can be split into two categories. Legal custody means the right to make decisions about school, childcare, healthcare, religious activities, extracurricular school, travel, and residence. Physical custody means who the child or children live with. One type of custody doesn’t necessarily preclude the other. For example, one day parent may be the primary (or main) physical custody holder, while both parents retain joint legal custody.
Sole vs. joint custody
Both types of custodies can be held jointly or by a sole parent. This can play out in a number of ways. For example:
- One parent has sole physical and legal custody because the other parent has been deemed unfit or is unable or unwilling to have joint custody.
- Both parents have joint custody, sharing physical and legal responsibilities as evenly as possible.
- Both parents have joint custody, but for logistical reasons like school location or work hours, the parents agree that one of them has primary physical custody.
For divorced couples who are able to part as friends—or at least be friendly—co-parenting is ideal. Essentially it means that you and your former partner parent your children together in an equitable, empathetic, and amicable way. You are able to put your personal differences aside and keep the lines of communication open. You both work to adhere to the co-parenting agreement you’ve developed, even as life circumstances shift. It’s bearable to both attend school meetings, recitals, sports events, and family gatherings, even when (perhaps especially when) one or the both of you enter new relationships. You generally agree on the big things for your children, like education and spiritual upbringing. Co-parents likely have joint legal and physical custody.
The ways you deal with your divorce as it’s happening can set the stage for how you co-parent for years to come. Read “10 Golden Rules for Amicable Divorce if You Have Children” to keep things calm and healthy.
If co-parenting seems out of reach because it’s difficult to be in the same room together without erupting in toxic arguments, parallel parenting may be a solution. Parallel parenting removes as much direct contact between you and your ex as possible. You do not attend events or even doctors appointments together. The relationship is business-like and communication may take place mostly through a shared calendar, emails, and text messages. While this arrangement may seem difficult for your children, it is better than arguing in front of the kids. It may also end up being a stepping stone to co-parenting in the future.
A less common arrangement, this physical custody option allows children to stay in one home while the parents take turns living in the home on their assigned days or weeks. This provides stability for the children but can be expensive for the parents to maintain.
The goal of this glossary is to help you start to think about the many ways you and your former spouse can envision a future as parents, even though you are no longer romantic partners. With the help of divorce mediation, you can develop a custody agreement that best suits the unique needs of your family.
Contact South Bay Mediation to set up a free consultation (in-person or video) to learn more about how divorce mediation can help your family move forward.