by: Kent Elliott
I want to talk about what it means when we talk about the best interest of the child when considering custodial arrangements. Agonizing over the well-being of a child or children during the dissolution of a marriage or partnership is one of the hardest things parents have to go through. Many parents stay together solely because they worry about what a separation or divorce will do to their children. If parents are particularly close with their children, they worry that they will miss them when they go to the other parent’s home for shared parenting time. They worry that the other parent won’t continue the level of care that they are used to getting at home. They may have anger toward their partner and don’t feel they can trust them with responsibility for their kids. All of these feelings are normal and understandable. The good news is that with time and support, families can weather these changes, and research shows that children can have very stable and happy lives in spite of their parents divorcing.
The first thing you should know is that if you are married and have children, when you divorce, the courts will require you and your spouse to take a parenting course, from which you will receive a certificate of participation. If you have been a parent for a long time, you may thing this is silly or unnecessary. What is nice about it is that the spouse you are so worried about will also have to take the parenting class. You will both be given guidelines and resources to assure you are both on the same page when thinking about the big picture. You will not need to take the course at the same place or time, of course, but you will both have the same information.
The next thing you should know is that in Massachusetts, as well as around the country, courts are moving away from the traditional model of one parent being the primary physical custodian, and more toward joint legal and physical custody, unless some outstanding circumstances warrant otherwise. Courts are moving away from the language of words like “visitation” – one parent is not seen as a weekend babysitter anymore. The term courts use now is “parenting time”. Both parents are co-parents.
Everyone will tell you that you should try not to argue in front of your children, and not to use them as a weapon or pawns in an argument with your spouse or partner. This is the most basic thing, and it’s true. If at all possible, try to speak to your ex about contentious issues when the children aren’t around. Try to show a peaceful front and mutual respect toward each other at all times. Keep your disagreements private. There’s a lot of psychology to research around this point. I won’t dwell on it here. I want to talk about what the courts will expect, and what you can do to prepare for separation.
Think about the schedules your family must work around. If both parents currently work, or will be working after the divorce, what are the hours? Do the children attend after school activities, sports, etc.? Will they need rides to or from school? It often works out best that children stay with one parent for the school week, but if both parents live close, it’s not unheard of for the child/children to spend a couple of week nights at the other parent’s house. Sometimes, for a parent who doesn’t get to see their children as often, time spent driving a child to practice or picking up is time they can share and catch up. Be flexible.
Did you know that you can work out a schedule with your spouse and children (if they are old enough to have a say) that you can submit to the court for approval? You don’t have to be at the mercy of a judge who doesn’t know you and your family. The important things to think about are these: Do you and your spouse want to share custody equally and equitably? Do your children want quality time with both parents? Do they feel they can talk to and have access to the other parent freely? Can they feel love and support from both of you? Can you show them they are loved by and important to both parents? Can you work to be flexible to allow them to continue in their schools and activities? Can you provide them with counselors or other qualified adults to talk to? If you can answer these questions, you are well on your way to a healthy divorce and a healthy family.
Kent Elliott is a paralegal and title examiner with experience in family law, probate law, and real estate. In a prior life, Kent was an early education teacher. Kent can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.