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What is a Normal Custody Plan?

People trying to figure out how their family will work after a divorce often try to gauge what is “normal” or “average”.  The law understands that every family is unique and provides families and judges with broad leeway to craft parenting plans that work for each individual situation.  The decision made is composed of two basic parts: how will decisions be made on behalf of the children and how will the parents share time with the children?   In every case, the goal is to formulate a plan, called a parenting plan, that serves the best interests of any child involved.  Usually, a child’s best interests are served by stability–the creation of a parenting plan that is as close to the status quo they are accustomed to as is possible in light of the circumstances.

This usually means that parents continue to share decision-making power after a divorce, known as “joint legal custody”.  Joint legal custody requires parents to consult with one another about major decisions like changing a child’s school, allowing the child to have an elective medical procedure, or picking a course of treatment when a child has been diagnosed with an illness.  When parents share joint legal custody, each parent has the authority to consent to routine things without the other, like emergency or regular medical care.  Joint legal custody is appropriate as long as the parents are capable of cooperating with one another and neither parent’s ability to make decisions in the child’s best interest is compromised.  This is true even where the parents may disagree about what is in a child’s best interest or have some difficulty cooperating.  Generally speaking, it is difficult to prove that one parent should have sole legal custody unless there is some obvious reason (for instance, the other parent having a documented history of substance abuse, of serious mental health issues, or of abusing the child).

This also usually means that the child continues to spend time with both of his or her parents on a regular basis.  Traditionally, this was referred to as “physical custody”.  Judges and attorneys have begun moving away from using this term because it fails to adequately describe the type of plan that is being outlined.  Instead, the term “parenting plan” or “parenting schedule” is often used.  In most cases, a parenting plan that is in the best interests of the involved children will have them staying in the same primary residence with the same parent who has shouldered most of the parenting responsibilities.  The parent keeping a separate residence gets to spend substantial time with the child(ren), often including overnight visits.  For example, one or two nights per week where they have dinner with the child(ren), and overnights every other weekend.   In most cases, expecting children to spend equal time at each parent’s house is not in the best interests of the child.  Such an arrangement requires children to maintain two entirely separate homes, something most adults would be miserable doing.  Could you imagine having to switch homes midweek or every other week?  Of remembering all the items you will need for the rest of the week?  Of being inconvenienced if not lectured for forgetting an item?  Add on top of this that you are a child switching between two homes where schedules, rules, and expectations may be different.  Such an arrangement is likely only appropriate where parents live extremely close to one another and get along extraordinarily well, or if the children involved are teenagers and the arrangement is open ended in order to give them autonomy in deciding where they would like to spend their time.