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Dad with joint custody teaching his son to ride a bike on a path in a park with trees in the background.

Finding the Right Solution for Kids: Common Custody Terms

By the time co-parents reach the point of divorcing, they’ve generally had a lot of practice disagreeing about important things. And nothing’s more important than their children, so creating custody arrangements can be the most contentious part of a divorce. Keeping the focus on finding the best solution for kids helps co-parents transition into a custody arrangement with minimal trauma. Exactly what that arrangement looks like is unique to every family, but these are some of the terms that separating parents should understand as they start to think about what the next chapter looks like.   

Physical custody entitles a parent to have their child or children live with them. Parents with physical custody are responsible for kids’ day-to-day care. 

Joint physical custody entitles both parents to have children live with them for some amount of time. The specifics of how custody is shared between the parents, including what percentage of time kids spend living with each parent, are laid out in the parenting plan. 

Legal custody determines who is legally able to make decisions on behalf of the child. Decisions made by parent/s with legal custody include things like where children go to school, what rules they have to follow, what medical care they do or don’t receive (including vaccines), if/where they go to religious services, and so on. 

Joint legal custody entitles both parents to make decisions about the child’s health, safety and welfare. While joint physical custody can be split up in unequal percentages, joint legal custody is shared equally. Courts determine whether joint legal (and/or physical) custody is awarded to both biological parents. There’s a predisposition to give legal custody to both biological parents. A parent generally has to do something extreme, like be neglectful or abusive, to lose legal custody.

Parenting plans are legal agreements that lay out exactly how parents with joint custody will share their responsibilities around the care of their children. A parenting plan is created and signed by divorcing parents and included as part of the separation agreement. Working together with their divorce attorneys, parents map out exactly how they will manage the details of sharing custody. A parenting plan includes excruciatingly specific details. How many days will the children spend at each parent’s house? Who will pick up the child from whose house on what day and at what time? Who’s allowed to provide childcare? How will holidays, birthdays, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day be scheduled? (Of course, lots of unanticipated issues will come up in the future, so a parenting plan should include language that builds in some flexibility for parents to negotiate them.)

Parents sometimes want to skip creating a parenting plan and take these kinds of decisions as they come. But that strategy backfires the first time co-parents come to a stalemate about a scheduling issue. Now there’s tension between the parents and the kids are anxious because they don’t know where they’re going. That’s a situation that everyone wants to avoid, which is why divorce attorneys want to iron out as many custody details as possible before the separation agreement is finalized. Agreeing to a comprehensive parenting plan lets parents avoid future disputes, and gives kids much-needed structure during a difficult time. 

But it’s easy to see how fraught it can be for separating parents to come together on a parenting plan. Sometimes the two parties simply can’t come to an agreement about how they’ll share custody. In that case, a judge may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to help. 

A Guardian Ad Litem is an impartial, trained professional who evaluates the custody situation and makes recommendations to the court about the parenting plan and other issues of concern. A GAL is often an attorney but may also be someone like a therapist, social worker or child psychologist. Their role is to act in the best interest of the children. A GAL reviews all the facts of the case, interviews the parents, children, teachers, doctors and others as requested by the parents, then submits a detaled report to the court with recommendations.   

Parenting coordinators can also be important figures in custody cases. Like a GAL, a parenting coordinator is a professional, impartial third party who acts on behalf of the children. Unlike a GAL, a parenting coordinator works with families on an ongoing basis. Working with a parenting coordinator allows parents to communicate and mediate disputes that aren’t addressed by their parenting plan. For example, say one parent wants to let their child sign up to play football and the other refuses. A parenting coordinator would consider everyone’s position and make a suggestion. If the parents have not agreed in writing that the parent coordinator has binding decision-making authority, and the scope of said authority, the parent coordinator’s “suggestion” is not enforceable.   

Families dealing with divorce and custody arrangements are under a great deal of stress. Everyone needs support during the process. Children need access to therapy to manage all the complicated emotions that come up during divorce. Parents need support from divorce attorneys and other professionals who have walked clients through it over and over and know how to navigate its more painful moments. 

Sassoon Cymrot’s family law attorneys work with families throughout the divorce and custody process, helping parents find solutions to make this transition as painless as possible for all. We’re here to answer any questions you may have about divorce and custody. Contact us today. 

Hindell has successfully negotiated, litigated and arbitrated hundreds of cases on behalf of her clients. Several of her successes have been published in Massachusetts Lawyer's Weekly and she has been featured in the Needham Tab, Boston Business Journal and the Boston Globe.
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