One of the most difficult things in any paternity or divorce case is figuring out the schedule for your children – this comes into play when talking about both physical custody and parenting time.
In Minnesota, physical custody is the routine, daily care of the children. Parties can have joint physical custody, or one party can have sole physical custody. Joint physical custody does not mean 50/50 – in fact some parties may use the term “joint,” although the children spend almost all of their time with one parent. Parenting time (formerly known as visitation) is the time that each party spends with the children. When figuring out child custody and parenting time issues, here are some things for you to consider:
- Forget about what you want – focus on your children’s best interests. Too often times I hear phrases such as “I want full custody” and “he doesn’t deserve 50/50.” The court doesn’t care what you want or what he “deserves.” The court cares about the best interests of the children. Let’s keep the discussion focused on the kids.
- Take money out of it. The bias that I have, and the bias that judges, custody evaluators, and other professionals have, is that people stuck on “50/50” time are trying to significantly reduce their child support obligations. Minnesota’s child support guidelines use a different calculation when the children are with each parent nearly 50% of the time. You can still have significant time with the children without having 50% of the time. Some parties get stuck on this issue because they are tied up on the finances. Focus on the children and figuring out a schedule that works for everyone first, and then talk about the money.
- Understand that there is not a “one size fits all” arrangement. When I have a client come to me and say “we just want the normal schedule” or “we want the 50/50 schedule,” I have to ask, “what does that mean to you?” Your family is different, your family’s schedule should be tailored to your family’s needs.
- Keep in mind your child’s developmental needs. Consider a multi-step plan. Children need different things at different stages in their lives. A teenager can spend longer periods of time away from one parent than an infant can. The Minnesota Supreme Court Advisory Task Force on Visitation and Child Support Enforcement’s publication A Parental Guide to Making Child-Focused Parenting Time Decisions goes through the different stages of child development and makes parenting time suggestions. This is not the law, and all children may be different, but it is a good starting point. If you have very young children, consider designing a parenting time plan with multiple steps (i.e. until Susie’s first birthday, from age 1 until age 3, from age 3 until age 5, upon starting school…).
- Maintain as much stability as possible. The break-up of a family is a very difficult and stressful time for all involved, especially for the children stuck in the middle. Do what you can to maintain stability in your child’s life. How has the family operated while the parents were together? Where were the children going to school and daycare? What activities were the children involved with? Work on creating a predictable schedule that your children can easily adjust too.
- Consider the practical realities of the situation. Something that looks great on paper just may not work for your family in real life. If Dad has to work every third weekend, an alternating weekend schedule may cause problems. If one parent is living in Monticello, and the other parent is living in Hastings, mid-week visits might not work. If there is truly going to be a joint schedule, both parents must be committed to staying in the same general vicinity – preferably in the same school district.
- Take into account work schedules and school activities. If Mom works every Wednesday night, it generally makes sense for the children to be with Dad instead of with a babysitter every week. If Dad works every Friday night, it makes sense for a weekend to start Saturday morning instead of Friday afternoon. If the kids are in soccer every Tuesday and Thursday night, figure out the easiest way to handle those nights.
- Remember holidays and vacations too. A proper parenting time schedule will include not only the regular weekly schedule, but also holidays and vacations. Do not put in your document “the parties shall alternate every other legal holiday.” You probably don’t care where the children spend Flag Day. If your extended family always has a family celebration on the first Saturday of November – then include “Jones Family Celebration (first Saturday of November) in your holiday schedule. Also consider how much vacation time your family needs and what type of notice to the other parent is required. Most of the time, each party is given 2-3 weeks for vacation. But if your extended family is in Europe, and every summer you spend 3 weeks with them, and you might want to have another week or two to take the kids to Disneyland, you’ll want to have more vacation time.
- Be as specific as possible – but be flexible. Court orders that award a parent “reasonable and liberal parenting time” are just waiting to cause a fight. What exactly does reasonable and liberal mean? To one parent it may mean every other weekend, to the other it may mean 2 weeks at a time. And to the police officer called to enforce it, it means “a civil matter I don’t want to deal with, go back to court.” Your parenting time arrangements should be as detailed as possible. But at the same time, it is important for both parents to be flexible. Life happens, things come up, and sometimes we all just need to roll with it.
- Learn to communicate and decide how to resolve disputes. The divorce or custody case may be over tomorrow – but the two of you will be co-parents for the rest of your lives. How will you communicate about the important events in your child’s life? Are you able to call each other on the phone or send an e-mail to share information? Do you need to use a parenting notebook? Should you maintain some sort of calendar to keep track of the kids’ activities? What happens when there is a disagreement over parenting issues or schedules? Especially when you have young children, there will be many opportunities in the future for disputes to arise. Decide how you will handle these disputes if you are unable to reach a mutual agreement. Will you go to mediation or a parenting time expediter or a parenting consultant? How will this professional be selected?