The traditional family unit – Mom, Dad, Children – has evolved over the last few decades. The laws, however, have only started to catch up. One of the changes that has developed over time is the move from the “tender years doctrine” – the idea that mothers are more natural caregivers, and therefore should be granted custody of the children – to the shared parenting plan.
In 2017, reports the Washington Post, 25 states considered and/or passed new bills “accelerating this trend toward co-parenting, with legislatures… this year considering bills that would encourage shared parenting or make it a legal presumption — even when parents disagree.” There are bills in various committees in Maryland’s statehouse to “create a presumption of joint legal decision-making and equal parenting time,” and our neighbors – DC and Virginia – have similar plans and statutes making their way through the system as well.
On the surface, 50/50 co-parenting time may seem like an excellent idea – but is it, really? We wanted to review the pros and cons of equal parenting time, because we want you to be empowered to make the best possible decision for you and your child.
Co-parenting is good for the children
As advocates for both our clients and for children, we have seen first-hand how beneficial co-parenting can be. (Cases of abuse or personality disorders are, of course, the exception to the rule.) Generally speaking, when both parents are able to work together to raise their children, those children are in a far better position to move forward and grow.
How do we know? There’s evidence that supports it:
- Children who live with both parents are less stressed than those whose parents have a traditional custody/visitation agreement.
- Overall, children want more time with their fathers than they have traditionally had – and fathers want more time with their children.
- Children whose parents share custody “get better grades; are less likely to smoke, get drunk, and use drugs; and are less susceptible to anxiety, depression, and stress-related illnesses.”
50/50 parenting time splits, however, are not always best for the kids
We do believe that children should spend time with both parents, and the laws support that, too. However, a true 50/50 split is not necessarily the best approach.
First, not all parents have equal time available to them. If one parent works two jobs, and the other only works one, then a completely equal split is unfair to both parents and to the children. After all, the child will be deprived of time with both parents if he or she is required to spend time alone in a house simply because the days need to be split evenly. It makes far more sense to split the custody based on when the parents can actually spend quality time with their children.
Next, not all parents live in the same geographical area. Even a move between one town to the next could affect where a child goes to school. There is evidence that constantly switching schools could lead to serious problems for children. A study out of Denmark in 2014 “found that children moving from rural to urban settings showed increased signs of psychoses. The authors also noted that the students had to deal with not just a change in their home environment, but in their social network of friends at school as well.” Unless both parents live within the same school district, there is no feasible way for a child to remain at his or her school for an entire year, year after year, without one or both parents having to sacrifice more time and/or money to make it work – time and money that could be better put to use for your children.
One parent may be tasked with additional driving and expenses associated with bringing the child to and from the other parent’s home more often. Furthermore, the added time on the road may make it impossible for a child to engage in afterschool or enrichment activities, or to work at a part-time job or internship, especially if the child is not of driving age.
Requiring an exact 50/50 split in parenting time will also remove any flexibility that you and your former spouse may have worked into your parenting plan. When you create your parenting plan with your co-parent, you can add in as little or as much specificity as you need. For example, you may wish to include a caveat that allows for “flex time” to be spent with extended family – say, and extra two days at the holidays, or for a family reunion – that can be used by either parent (and to be divided equally if nothing major is planned). Or, if you live close by to one another, you can have your child spend some nights at your house and some nights at your spouse’s home throughout the week. If both parents make a concerted effort to parent jointly, and to help one another spend meaningful amounts of time with your children, then you open a new world of possibilities and benefits for your child.
Requiring a true 50/50 split takes away that flexibility, and forces both parents into an agreement that seldom works well for the children or for them.
Remember: you can update your agreements to reflect changing times
Custody agreements, or parenting plans, that work when the children are young may not be as effective as the children grow older. Parents are allowed to petition for changes to their custody agreements if those changes work towards the best interests of the children, just as you can petition a court for a change in support if your circumstances change drastically (for example, if you lose a job). You can also ask to modify a parenting agreement if you or your former spouse has to move for work, or if one of you suddenly takes ill. The process is not always easy, and we would not suggest treating your court order as something that can be changed at will. But if circumstances change, a modification may be appropriate.
We know that child custody can turn even an amicable divorce into a contentious one. At McCabe Russell, PA, we help our clients find resolutions that work for them – but we are not afraid to fight when we know it is what is best for you and children. As seasoned litigators and negotiators, we handle the most complex family law claims in Howard County courts. To learn more about our services, or to speak with a Columbia family law attorney you can trust, please call 443-917-3347 or fill out this contact form to reserve your consultation time. We also maintain offices in Fulton, Bethesda and Rockville, and are proud to serve clients throughout Howard and Montgomery Counties.