For a parent facing a divorce or separation, one of the primary concerns can be which parent will gain custody of the child. More and more often however, parents have been pursuing shared parenting arrangements instead of fighting for sole custody of the child. When parents are capable of working together to make decisions regarding their child, a shared parenting arrangement might provide a way for both parents to remain more involved in their child’s life.
The Difference Between Shared Parenting and Sole Custody
If sole custody is awarded, one parent gains exclusive physical and legal custody over the couple’s child. The “custodial parent” typically has much more control over parenting decisions, from day-to-day parenting choices to deciding where and how a child will be educated. These arrangements are most common when the parents live far apart, do not communicate well, or when one parent has been deemed unfit. Though the child will usually live most of the time with the parent who has sole custody, visitation schedules and parenting plans will provide for time with the other parent.
In a shared parenting arrangement, on the other hand, both parents share decision making responsibility for the child. In some states, both parents will be designated as the “residential parent and legal custodian.” Advocates of shared parenting also argue that children are better served when both parents play a large role in their life.
Under most shared parenting agreements, parenting time is shared more equally. More equal time sharing may also result in a proportional decrease in child support payments. For example, Ohio’s child support calculations call for reduced child support obligations when the parent paying support spends more time with the child. This is because more of the costs of childcare would be covered by that parent in person, as opposed to being the responsibility of the parent with sole custody.
Does Shared Parenting Differ from Joint Custody?
Often the terms shared parenting and joint custody are used interchangeably. However, in a true joint custody situation, both parents split parenting time equally. This can be difficult for both children and parents in terms of scheduling and logistics. For young children in particular, traveling equally between parents’ homes may run counter to the stability young children need. Shared parenting, however, does not require a fifty-fifty split in parenting time. Though more equal parenting time is common, the primary sharing referred to in shared parenting arrangements is the right to share equally in decisions regarding the child.
When Should Shared Parenting be Considered?
Several state laws presume that shared parenting is in the best interests of the child. All states allow for shared parenting plans when both parents seek them and the court approves. For shared parenting to work, both parents should be able to communicate well with each other in order to make mutual decisions about their child. Some of the issues both parents may have to agree upon include:
Parents should also consider how they would resolve disputes. Many parenting agreements include a process for resolving disagreements when parents can’t come to a compromise.
Adjusting Parenting Plans Over Time
The needs of the child should be central to any parenting plan. As a child grows, these needs will change over time. For example, a young child might need to spend most of its time in one household in order to make sure its schedule is stable and regular. A teenager, on the other hand, will be able to move between parents more often.
For these reasons, many parents today shape their shared parenting agreements to match a child’s development, providing for longer periods of time with each parent when the child is young and shorter periods as the child grows. Additionally, a change of circumstances regarding a child’s health, educational needs or social obligations may mean that a parenting plan must be adjusted. Parents may consider adding provisions for changing a parenting plan into their agreement to avoid returning to court when the plan needs to be altered.
If You’re Considering Shared Parenting, Consult With an Attorney First
Shared parenting can be an effective way to make sure that both parents are involved in a child’s life. If you're currently wondering about custody, parenting plans or shared parenting, consult a family law attorney who specializes in custody issues. A skilled family law attorney can help answer your questions and provide information about the custody laws in your area.