5 keys to crafting a child custody agreement that works for everyone
Once a custody agreement becomes an order signed by a judge, both parents must live with it.
The negotiation process begins with the realization that although a relationship is ending, parenting continues. All the daily dynamics of each parent's dual roles will be spelled out in the custody agreement, a living, breathing - and binding - agreement.
If the agreement is to work, it should benefit the child, which sometimes means putting aside the parent's emotions in favor of the child's best interests. Here are five tips toward crafting the best custody agreement.
1. Find the best solution for your family.
All family law in Pennsylvania is built around the guiding principle of the best interests of the child. Parents should put emotions aside and focus on their joint responsibilities. Parents must treat it as an arms-length business relationship: Parents are partners in raising a child, for life, and the goal is to make the overall situation better for the child - not to prove the other parent inferior.
A custody agreement is about finding creative solutions to two adults living apart but juggling various shared responsibilities in a manner that appears smooth and seamless to the child. Not only is this method of parenting most likely to aid in the physical and emotional development of your child, but a parent's cooperation in doing so will be looked upon favorably by the court, should a modification occur down the road.
2. Be realistic.
On paper, a child custody agreement can seem precise. Handoff times are often set down to the half or quarter hour. Every day, appointments must be kept, drop-offs and pick-ups must be made, and deadlines must be met. In reality, life happens. Cars don't start. Traffic jams occur. And human beings make mistakes, mix-up schedules, and run late.
This is why custody agreements need breathing room. Be realistic. Realize that school and daycare schedules change. Transportation to various schools will evolve. And there will be new commitments involving sports, extra-curricular activities, and friends over time, by the child's choice.
That said, if a parent has consistent problems with tardiness or keeping to part of the schedule, modifications may be in order.
3. Location is everything.
Seldom does a factor complicate a custody agreement more than a great physical distance between parents. Under Pennsylvania statute, a party with physical custody cannot unilaterally move too far away from the other without following certain rules and procedures, including possibly having the proposed relocation approved by a family law judge.
The court looks at 16 factors regarding the best interests of the child. Location is one of the biggest factors, because it determines a child's school, friends, family, and other important people in his or her life.
The closer both parents remain in proximity, the better shared custody agreements generally work for the child. Location determines a child's school, friends, family, and other important people in his or her life. Physical distance adds the stress of travel and the possibility of failed plans - along with the possible feeling of being caught between two worlds and alternate realities.
Further, stability is one of the key factors judges prize in custody agreements. Moving often, especially over great distances, undermines that stability.
4. What does your child want?
Judges will often as a child about his wishes, in private, to determine what the Custody Act refers to as the reasonable preference of the child. When the judge interacts with the child, attorneys are present, but parents are not. Rarely does a child testify at an open hearing in a custody case.
There are no hard and fast rules regarding the child's age or how much weight must be given to the child's preference as opposed to other custody factors. It is not beyond a five-year-old to voice a reasonable opinion on a custody schedule, or a child to complain that his father doesn't feed him enough. But a child simply saying that she "hates" her mom without any reasoning won't generally carry much weight. And a child's preference to be with one parent may be overshadowed in the court's opinion by other factors, leading the court to make a decision contrary to the child's preference.
One thing to keep in mind while preparing and living with a custody agreement is that parent-child relationships have been injured by a parent insisting on the letter of the custody agreement over the wishes of their child. Older children, especially, are going to want to create their own schedules. If you demand "your time" just because the custody agreement says so, removing your child from friends, social engagements, and sports, it won't be long before resentment builds.
5. Never put your child in the middle.
Going back and forth between mom's and dad's is hard enough. Don't make the mistake of putting your child in the middle, emotionally, by having them "spy" on your estranged spouse.
While you may be curious about your ex-partner, pumping your child for information is unacceptable. Should the judge find out in a future hearing, it won't reflect well on you.
A custody agreement is not an indictment of parenting ability. It is not a sign that you cannot trust the other parent. Rather, it is a sign of good intentions, as writing down any agreement tends to help parties ensure that they each have the same understanding of the terms, which reduces the chances of a disagreement in the first place.
A custody agreement is, at its best, a flexible outline of intended actions, and a fallback to settle future disagreements where one parent does not want to, or is not able to, be flexible. It offers a default position to help both parents predict and schedule family gatherings, extracurricular events, transportation, and similar needs. It is ultimately a guideline to help two parents understand their shared duties and reduce miscommunication and conflict.