Child custody, visitation and shared parenting

Custody, parenting time (sometimes called visitation in other states) and shared parenting are important terms to understand when you're getting divorced with kids. Read more to find out what you need to know.

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If you have minor children, you will need to plan for them as part of your divorce or dissolution.  As you think about what’s best for your children, it’s important to understand some of the key terms: custody, parenting time (also called visitation) and shared parenting.  Once you decide what you’d like to ask for you will need to propose a parenting plan to the court.

Keep in mind that whatever custody arrangement you make doesn’t directly affect how child support works. 

Usually, one parent has custody and the other has parenting time. 

The child spends most nights with the parent with "primary custody." As the "primary custodian," you make all the decisions about how to raise your child.

The other parent usually has “parenting time” (also called “visitation” in other states)—or the right to spend time with the child, including overnights.

Each county has a standard parenting time schedule.

Each county’s court has created a standard parenting time schedule that shows when a child has time with each parent. Go to your county’s domestic relations court website to look up what the standard is for your county. 

It's unusual for a court to deny a parent the minimum time defined in the standard parenting time schedule without a strong reason. For example, it would have to be dangerous or clearly not in the child’s best interest to spend that amount of time with one of the parents.

Let’s use an example of Sharon, John and Jake:

Sharon and John have one child together, named Jake. The couple has decided to end their marriage. Even though the court's standard parenting time schedule says John should see Jake every other weekend, John doesn’t have a stable place to live yet and he works odd hours. Instead of requesting primary custody for herself and standard parenting time for John, Sharon asks the court for something else. Until John can get a safe place to live and a more regular schedule, it’s in Jake’s best interest to spend one weekend day with his dad, every other week, but not spend the night.

You could create a shared parenting plan instead.

In shared parenting, sometimes called "joint custody" in other states, both parents make key decisions together about how to raise the child. These decisions include things like where their child will go to school and what kind of medical care they will receive.

This doesn't necessarily mean that your child spends equal time with both parents.  Let’s use an example of Linda, David and Maria:

Linda and David have a daughter, named Maria. Together, Linda and David have come to an agreement that Maria will stay with David on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and with Linda on the other days. Even though Linda and David have their differences, they will work together to raise Maria. 

There are some issues to keep in mind. It's best not to divide the number of nights the child stays with each parent exactly in half. For instance, they might spend one more night a year with one parent. The parent with the extra night can then claim the child as a “dependent,” giving them reduced taxes and increased government benefits. See understanding child support for more information on tax and benefit issues. 

For many, shared parenting sounds easier than it actually ends up being. You will need to agree on all the details of how to raise your child. Make sure that both you and your spouse are ready to raise your child together. 

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