Child Custody and Visitation Basics

One of the biggest conflicts in many divorce cases is how child custody and visitation will be structured.

By Tracy Achen, Divorce Coach

When it comes to custody, legal and physical custody of the child(ren) will need to be determined. With joint legal custody, the child may reside with just one parent, while both parents are informed and make decisions in a child’s life. The parents may also share physical custody. With joint physical custody, the child resides with both parents on a set rotating schedule, such as 50/50 or 60/40, or any other variation the parents agree upon. With sole legal and physical custody, the parent with whom the child lives makes all the decisions, but the other parent may still have visitation rights. 

Nolo's Essential Guide to Child Custody and Support is a handy reference discussing how child custody and support are generally determined. It also discusses what to expect from the divorce process, how to handle the threat of custodial kidnapping or interference, child support basics, and reaching a custody agreement that would be in the best interest of your children. The reference section includes information for all 50 states on best interest statutes, relocation issues, as well as modifying child custody and/or support.

It is best to try to agree on child custody and visitation without going to court. Unfortunately, a ploy some men use is to threaten to sue for custody. They know that this is a woman’s weak spot and by attacking it, she may give up everything else just to keep the kids. Past parenting should indicate if your husband is seriously considering trying to raise the children himself.

Litigating Child Custody and Visitation

If you feel that it's in your children's best interest to stay with you, then don't budge. Just realize that child custody litigation is expensive and can eat up your assets. Worst of all it puts your children in the middle of your divorce proceedings, a place they don’t need to be.

If you are battling for custody, you need sound strategy for your case. Consider reading "Child Custody A to Z: Winning with Evidence" (#ad - As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases). This book fully outlines and explains child custody litigation and what to expect in a custody battle. It goes into detail on how custody decisions are made, walks you through what to expect at each stage of the process, and gives tips on how to make sure your abilities are clearly presented to the people who will influence the final child custody arrangement. This book is meant to eliminate surprises so you can avoid costly mistakes along the way.

Working out a visitation schedule

Once child custody is determined, a visitation schedule can be worked out. Remember that children respond best to a routine that they can rely on. While the standard is every other week-end and alternating holidays, you need to take your child’s age and development into consideration.

Here are some general suggestions for visitation:

  • Infants - a few hours every two to three days to build a bond with the parent who doesn't have physical custody. Over-night is usually too traumatic.
  • 6 months to 17 months - One day a week.
  • Starting at 18 Months - One day plus a night. 
  • 2 to 3 years old - Two days plus a night 
  • Elementary School age - Alternating week-ends, plus extended visits during school breaks 
  • Teens - Same as above, but with more flexibility to accommodate their schedules.

Visitation during holidays and school breaks also needs to be worked out in the child custody section of your divorce papers. Generally the children will spend every other holiday with their father, alternating the years for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The children can benefit if their parents work out a mutual agreement for sharing both holidays and vacations. Always try to keep the child’s best interests in mind and incorporate flexibility into custody and visitation schedules.

Even though custody arrangements may keep your children from seeing their Dad on a regular basis, let them know that they can keep in touch by calling or writing. Try not to let your hard feelings towards your ex get in the way of their relationship with their father.

When they do visit their Dad, don't be surprised if they act up after getting back to your house. You might take it as a sign that there's a problem, but generally, it's just your child's way of adjusting between environments. Give them a little space, and talk to them if they are open to it. If they do want to talk, let them lead the discussion, but don't turn it into an interrogation about your ex (you really don't need to know if he is seeing someone, or how much money he is blowing).

For more ideas on child custody and visitation arrangements, check out Custody Alternative Schedules, by Robert Emory, a nationally recognized author, psychologist, custody and parenting instructor, and divorce mediator.

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