Divorce may be what’s best for a couple, but it’s almost always a rough transition for the kids. The courts take this into consideration when making decisions about child custody. But like everything else, custody issues are influenced by social trends.
“The cultural pendulum has swung—Dad is taking a more active role these days, and more judges are willing to go along with shared, 50-50 physical custody,” says Craig Kallen of Kallen Law Firm. “This is a major change from the days when Dad was lucky if he saw the kids every other weekend.” There’s been a gradual shift toward shared custody over the past three to five years, he notes, but it’s become a strong trend within the last two years as fathers become more involved in parenting.
“I’m seeing more arrangements where the kids get a week with Mom, followed by a week with Dad, or an every-other-night arrangement,” Kallen reports. But experts disagree on the long-term risks versus benefits of this kind of custody, he adds. “Dads are spending more time with their kids, and that’s great. But kids need a steady home base, particularly during the school year, and they need a certain amount of routine when it comes to relationships, homework patterns, meal- and bedtimes, etc. It remains to be seen how being constantly uprooted will affect them.”
Joyce Capshaw of Carmody MacDonald has been practicing family law for nearly 30 years. “When I first started, custody issues were straightforward: kids spent most of their time with Mom,” she says. “But now, both parents often work full time, and that has led to more equitable arrangements.” These days, the ‘2-2-3 agreement’ is common: “For example, Monday and Tuesday are spent with Mom, Wednesday and Thursday with Dad, and the parents alternate three-day weekends,” she explains. “But it only works if the parents are on good terms with one another. If not, it can turn into a disaster.”
Capshaw adds that contested custody cases are unusual. “Most cases settle; maybe one out of 30 goes to court. But when they’re contested, they’re ugly and expensive. I encourage my clients to work out their differences and focus on what’s best for the kids.”
Some parents resent the changes in terminology that come with changes in custody trends. “Even in cases where custody isn’t equal, more St. Louis County judges are starting to use the term ‘joint physical custody,’ instead of ‘temporary,’ to describe the role of the parent, often the father, who spends less time with the kids,” says Jeff Schechter of The Schechter Law Firm. “This change makes dads feel better, but a lot of moms are frustrated by it: Hey, why should his legal label be the same as mine when I’m the one who spends more time parenting? As an attorney, I can request Mom’s label be changed to ‘sole physical custody’ and Dad’s to ‘temporary physical custody,’ but these days, it’s often a losing battle. Most judges think it’s best for kids to feel they have two full-time, equally involved parents, at least in terms of the language that describes their roles.”
The economy also influences custody issues. “Since the economy has tanked we’re seeing more relocation cases, where a parent has to move out of state for a job, so custody arrangements need to be modified,” Schechter reports. Judges take the motive for moving into consideration, always keeping in mind the need for both parents to maintain meaningful contact with the child. “But the best interests of the child are always paramount.”