Determining Child Custody

In my profession as a divorce and family law attorney, I doubt there are any cases that can be more trying than an especially difficult custody case.  As unusual as it sounds, it is often much less difficult to stand by or to see an adult facing difficult family struggles than it is to see a child go through the effects of a bad divorce.  When parents have different goals in mind as it relates to custody (and often, on a related note, child support), tension ensues, and the parents and the children pay the price.

Parental Relocations

One particularly difficult custody situation is, what happens when the mother and the father divorce and move from the home, and one parent wishes to relocate to another distant area? And more importantly, what happens when they want to relocate to the area with the children, thereby creating distance between the kids and the other parent?  The first question one must ask is, is the move worth it? Are there significant factors related to moving that will improve the lives of the parent and children involved? And what, if any, difficulties will the remaining parent face if the children and the other parent relocate?  These are questions that the attorney, the family, and the Court will have to consider in deciding what will be in the best interests of the children and the parents involved.  Relocating away from a parent is never easy, and the Court and the attorneys have the duty to flush out the most important details and facts of the situation affecting the children, and what the best, most all-encompassing solution will be.

Developing A Custody Arrangement

In many households of divorce parents, one parent has primary physical custody of the child or children, and the other parent has partial physical custody of the child or children.  Physical custody (as opposed to legal custody, discussed herein) is where the children are, who they are with, or where they sleep.  It is the actual physical location of the kids.  Legal custody, on the other hand, is the decision making aspect of custody.  It is the parent, or more likely than not the parents, that make such decisions as religious, educational, medical, psychological and other broad important decisions relating to the health lifestyle and well-being of the children.

In situations where one parent has the majority of the custody time with the children, the custody schedule is often defined by how much time the other parent enjoys.  For example, "every other weekend" is fairly self-explanatory- the partial custody parent enjoys every other weekend with the child or children.  Often, weekends are split or rotated between the parents.  "Split" means that, for example, one parent has Saturday and the other parent has Sunday.  Or, One parent has Friday and the other parent has Saturday.  In effect, the weekends are "split." Rotating, on the other hand, means that each parent enjoys the whole weekend, every other week.  For example, in week one Father would enjoy Friday through Sunday, and in week two, Mother would enjoy Friday through Sunday.  Often, in partial custody schedules, the partial custody parent enjoys one or more weekdays, either taken as overnights or not taken as overnights.

Parents often utilize a primary/partial schedule in situations where the parents do not necessarily live in the same school district or where they may not live that close to each other.  In other situations, for whatever reason, one parent may be more equipped to handle more time with the children, whether that be for scheduling, fitness, or psychological reasons.  Yet other parents who enjoy a primary/partial arrangement do so because of the stability it provides for the child or children.  That is, the child or children have a "home base" for sleeping at night, and a regular location that they call home.  Although the other parent’s home is "home," too, some parents believe it is more solid and less confusing to establish a primary residence.

Another particularly difficult situation arises when both parents believe that they should be the one to have primary (or full or "most of the…") physical custody of the children.  If BOTH parents want primary physical and legal custody of the kids, it’s not as if you can divide the child in half!  However, you can divide the custody time in half, which is a popular course of action of the Court if you have two parents who are both capable of caring for the children and who can accommodate such an arrangement.  One very popular and important question that I get in my office is, what are some types of shared custody arrangements? How does it work in PA? Where do the kids spend the night? Often, we Pennsylvania attorneys refer to the number and division of the overnight time ("overnights") as the schedule.  For instance, 5-2-2-5 custody (or 5225 custody or 5/2/2/5 custody) refers to the number of nights that a parent enjoys custody before a transfer of custody takes place.  In other words, an example of 5-2-2-5 custody is, Mom enjoys Monday and Tuesday overnights, custody then goes to Dad for Wednesday and Thursday overnights, and then custody goes back to mom for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday overnights.  In 5-2-2-5, in this scenario, Mom will always have Mondays and Tuesdays, Dad will always have Wednesdays and Thursdays, and the parents will take turns (or alternate) having the weekend.  Because of the way the weekend "butts up" against the parents weekdays, thereby creating a block of 5, the schedule gets its name.

A similar schedule is a 3-2-2-3 (or 2-2-3 or 3223 or 3/2/2/3 etc.) In this particular schedule, for example, Mother may enjoy Monday and Tuesday during the first week of the month, Father may enjoy Wednesday and Thursday, and then custody goes back to Mother for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday overnights.  After Sunday, custody reverts to Dad for Monday and Tuesday, then to Mom for Wednesday and Thursday, then back to dad for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  This schedule is called 3-2-2-3, as it refers to the weekend days being a group of 3, and the fact that custody is usually not with one parent for more than 2 or 3 days.  It is similar to the 5-2-2-5 schedule, but different in that the parent’s Mondays and Tuesdays (for example) are not static – they change from week to week.  A 3-2-2-3 schedule most often works, in my experience, with younger children who may not want to be away from either parent for any great length of time, but still, for whatever reason, is subject to a shared custody schedule.

Yet another shared schedule is a "week on, week off" or sometimes even a "month on, month off" schedule where physical custody of the children are with one parent for a solid block of time, then switch to the other parent for a solid block of time.  Such schedules, in my opinion, are better suited to older children who may not suffer as much psychologically from being away from one parent or the other for extended periods of time.  Such schedules, in litigation, are popular in situations where the parents insist on a shared custody schedule, but may not want as may custody exchanges.  In effect, enjoying a week on, week off schedule means the parents are only exchanging the children once per week.  Likewise, a month on, month off schedule means the parents are exchanging the children only once per month.

Custody Exchanges

There are many reasons why parents may want to decrease or lessen or make the custody exchange times as few or as rare as possible.  First, a "custody exchange" is when the parents physically transfer the children from one parent to the other.  Custody exchanges can be as simple as one parent delivering the kids to the other’s residence, or one parent retrieving the children from school.  They can also be as difficult as both parents arriving at one point (such as a police station, community center, or restaurant) to exchange the kids, or perhaps each driving to a midpoint between their two residences to exchange the kids.  One reason parents may want to lessen custody exchanges is obvious- it can be inconvenient.  If the parents don’t live particularly close by each other, it may be physically difficult, with the work schedules, availability, etc. it is not convenient to have multiple exchanges over a short period of time.  Another reasons why parents, or in the case of an imposed Order, the Court, may want to lessen custody exchanges is because there is hostility between the parents.  In cases of abuse or those where the parent or one parent is just not nice to the other, custody exchanges are a time when they are forced to confront each other and such confrontation is not necessarily appropriate in front of the children.  After all, this is a couple who is probably divorced, or at least broken up for a reason.  They may just not get along anymore.

Suffice it to say, hard feelings and hostility aside, it is my opinion and I believe not an unpopular theory that divorced or separated parents who cooperate and at least try to get along in custody situations are benefitting their children.  Not only is the hostility and the tension lessened, but children learn by example.  If you can get along with the person with whom you share a child, but maybe not your life anymore, your child will see the situation and perhaps be more likely to imitate your good behavior.

Work With A Knowledgeable Attorney

Bethany L. Notaro, Esquire is an experienced custody lawyer, handling cases in Pittsburgh (Allegheny County) as well as throughout southwestern Pennsylvania (Westmoreland, Washington, Butler, among others).  Ms. Notaro will be more than happy to consult with you regarding your own unique custody case, and how she may help.  Litigating custody is often a difficult and sometimes emotional process for many families.  However, attorney Bethany L. Notaro and her custody law firm are here to explain your many options.  For more information on custody and custody litigation, please contact lawyer Bethany L. Notaro at 412-281-1944.