When parents decide to divorce, the ensuing child custody negotiations tend to be contentious, and it’s easy for emotions to become heated. But many family law attorneys report that, these days, their clients are increasingly seeking to turn down the temperature in the spirit of cohesion and co-parenting, even as the parents are no longer cohabitating.
“We are seeing more parents getting more and more creative when it comes to their custody scheduling,” said Thomas Smith, a family law attorney with the Peck Law Firm in Charleston.
The reasons for the shift toward co-parenting vary, attorneys say. For one, the stereotypical every-other-weekend-with-Dad has become passé. On a practical level, in most households both parents have jobs that they have to balance, and co-parenting eases the burden.
“Charleston is very tourist-oriented and many people in the area don’t work a traditional nine-to-five job,” Smith said.
More importantly, though, it comes down to the welfare of the children.
“Over the years, legislators and judges have seen the value in allowing flexibility and allowing tailored custody arrangements to meet the needs of parents and their children,” said Glenn Doyle of Doyle Law Group in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Younger children especially tend to do better when they have time with each parent–they don’t need to go a week without seeing Mom or Dad.”
Indeed, custody arrangements shouldn’t be based on a “cold legal decision,” said Shaunis Mercer, an attorney with the Rosen Law Firm, also in Raleigh.
“It should be about the individual needs of their children, and why it is important for their children to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents,” Mercer said.
To that end, many modern custody schedules include what’s come to be known as the “2-2-5-5”: Mom has the kids on Monday and Tuesday; Dad has the kids Wednesday and Thursday; Mom has them Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday; Dad takes over for five more days; and then repeat. The schedule gives both parents opportunities to be involved in their child’s weekdays that are filled with school work, sports, and other activities.
“It allows consistency from week to week during the school week for children, but allows for each parent to get fun weekend time with the children,” Mercer said.
Other options include the even split week-to-week, where each parent has the kids on alternating weeks, and what Mercer calls a modern twist on the “every other weekend” schedule, where Dad (or sometimes Mom) picks the kids up from school every other Thursday and then drops them off at school on the following Monday
“This allows for school week involvement for a parent who may have a less flexible work schedule to allow for truly equal physical custody of the children,” she said.
Some parents are going even further, attorneys say. One of the most unusual–and tricky–is “nesting,” where children stay in the house that they grew up in while the parents take turns living there. That can certainly raise complications and isn’t for everyone, Doyle said.
Doyle and Mercer recommend nesting only for parents who get along well and only for a set period of time.
“For me, it has a very short shelf life,” Mercer said. “It is something to do for maybe a month, as conflicts can arise.”
Some separating parents choose to continue to live together, or even take the “slow divorce” approach: a parent moves out, yet the family still continues to have dinner and take vacations together. Doyle said this can be especially beneficial for small children who don’t understand the concept of divorce.
“Those kind of things only work with people who put their children first and aren’t at each other’s throats,” Doyle said. “If you can’t put your marital hurt and the other stuff away while you parent your kids, you are not going to do a good job.”
Technology is playing a key role in custody now, and that goes way beyond texting. Smith points to Our Family Wizard, an app parents can use to coordinate schedules and communications. It’s particularly useful for parents who aren’t communicating well with each other by phone or face-to-face, as it documents all communication between them. It also offers email monitoring to help parents communicate in a more diplomatic manner with each other, offering alternative ways to say things so they don’t seem as aggressive.
Mercer works with families as both an attorney and also as a “parent coordinator,” a concept in which an attorney or a therapist acts as a mediator between parents regarding minor issues. Doyle said he also uses parent coordinators and recommended them, especially for parents with erratic work schedules, as a means of efficiently dealing with problems outside of the rigidity of a courtroom.
“Parent coordinators are the tie-breaker in the decision-making to help parents cooperate together so they don’t have to run into a courtroom when they can’t get along,” Mercer said.
But despite the more enlightened attitudes and good intentions, Smith said he sometimes deals with clients who push for more time with their children, but when push comes to shove don’t follow through. Or, if they do spend time with their children, it’s not quality time.
“One for the mistakes that I see my clients making is that they are asking for things that they really don’t want,” he said. “Some fathers won’t admit they are really are an ‘every-other-weekend’ dad. Are you going to be there [for the child] or are you just saying that so you will be able to win a custody battle?”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw