The scenario was at one time similar in nearly every divorce case: The mother got primary custody while the father would visit his children once or twice a week and every other weekend.
Fortunately, times have changed; more and more of today’s custody arrangements are 50/50 residential custody, where each parent has equal time with the children.
“Traditionally, the mother got the children and the dad paid child support,” says Sara Stout Ashcraft, a partner with Ashcraft Franklin & Young LLP, who focuses her practice on matrimonial and family law.
Seema Ali Rizzo, partner at Gallo & Iacovangelo LLP, says many of her clients express interest in this type of custody, which is also called shared custody. She estimates about 70 to 80 percent of her clients try to work out a shared custody arrangement.
“It has grown exponentially in the last 10 years, and clients are a little more savvy to it than even 5 years ago,” she says. “The other thing that has changed is male clients are asking about it more often.”
Rizzo, who is also chair of the Domestic Relations and Family Law Division of her firm’s Litigation Department, says the change is good for families.
“There has been extensive research on how children fare after a divorce, and long ago people would think it’s terrible for kids to go through divorce,” she says. “But the research doesn’t show that. When children have regular significant access with each of their parents, those are the children that fare the best, and they do even better when the parents co-parent effectively.”
Ashcraft agrees that shared custody arrangements have become more prevalent among her clients.
“This is a trend that you’re seeing,” she says. “There have been a lot of social changes over the years. Especially among younger men; they are much more involved in their children’s lives. Some of them come in wanting to do 50/50 residency.”
The schedule for shared custody largely depends upon the age of the children involved. Rizzo attended a seminar featuring an expert in residency timetables who clarified the optimal schedules for different age ranges.
“For infants to toddler age, those children need regular contact and face time,” she says. “You want an every other day kind of schedule when they’re that young.”
When children reach their preteen or early teen years, the preferred plan is a “2-2-5” week: two days with one parent, two days with the other parent and then alternate full weekends.
“What this ends up doing is giving one parent five days in a row and the other parent gets five days the following week,” Rizzo explains. “The reason I like this option is kids also need consistency. They get confused sometimes if people bounce around too much.”
While a good choice for children, some parents find the 2-2-5 week difficult.
“Some parents don’t like (2-2-5) because they don’t like not seeing the kids for five days, so it depends,” Ashcraft points out.
Another option is the “2-2-3” week: One parent will have the children Monday and Tuesday, the other parent takes the children Wednesday and Thursday, and the first parent then has the children for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The following week, the times switch so the parent who had the Wednesday-Thursday shift now has them Monday-Tuesday and over the weekend.
As children become teenagers, residency often transitions to one full week with one parent followed by a full week with the other parent.
“Kids that age have a lot of activities and don’t want to get dragged back and forth a lot,” Rizzo says. “The older children tend to like bigger stretches of time because it’s not as disruptive to their schedules.”
Complications parents encounter with a shared custody arrangement are most often with each other. Ashcraft finds that financial concerns can foster problems.
“The hurdle is often the child support issue,” she says. “Is someone trying to avoid paying child support or afraid of losing child support?”
Lack of interest in or support of a shared custody process can also cause disputes.
“I think the obstacles are generally just the other parent not wanting to agree with it,” Rizzo says. “If both parents are on the same page, we come up with a schedule that works. When one parent says, ‘What do you mean we’re going to share custody,’ that gets a little harder.”
“People getting a divorce are getting it for a reason, and it can be hard for them to consider the children’s best interests,” Ashcraft adds. “You’re dealing with human beings at a time when they are not at their best. They might be hurt and angry, and now they hear that they have to cooperate with this person who hurt them, and it can be hard.”
To make shared custody work, both parents must be prepared to cooperate for the sake of the children’s well-being.
“Both parties have to be really committed,” Ashcraft says. “They need to be flexible and live fairly close to each other, otherwise there is too much running back and forth. It works among people who are really committed to it.”
Both Ashcraft and Rizzo stress that communication and flexibility are essential for successful shared custody arrangements.
“The parents may have to work late some nights and it may be difficult,” Ashcraft says. “They really have to communicate and cooperate with each other, or it won’t work. It takes a lot of coordination.”
“You can’t hold grudges,” Rizzo says. “You can’t be tit for tat about bringing the kids back on time; you have to be flexible and cooperate. Sometimes you have an out-of-town family member come in, and you’ll need to communicate fairly with the other parent to see if you can switch times.
“Both parents need to be able to make those changes and be flexible with one another,” she adds. “Rigidity can be a problem. Flexibility works when both parents are flexible, not when one parent is giving it and another parent is not.”
Lisa Granite is the associate editor of the Rochester Business Journal.t