Expert Beacon | Brad Micklin
Without a doubt, children are an unintended casualty of divorce. Many kids just want their family back the way it used to be. But, when the marriage cannot be saved, parents simply have to push through the process and do their absolute best to keep it from affecting their children. This is always easier said than done. Here are tips for navigating the divorce process with your children’s best interests in mind.
Do your divorce homework
One way parents can make the divorce process less painful for their kids it to understand the laws and how a court will use those laws to decide custody. Nothing is worse than heading into a divorce without some idea of what could happen to you and your children. Each state has different child custody laws. Some states presume that parents have joint custody, while other states do not. In addition, some states presume that in the case of unmarried parents, the mother automatically has custody, while others expect single mothers to file for custody, even if the father is not involved.
Do understand physical vs. legal custody
Physical custody is all about where the child will live. It can be shared by both parents or granted to just one. This decision is crucial because in some states, a parent with sole physical custody has a presumed right to move away with the kids. To prevent a move, the noncustodial parent must go to court and show that the move would be harmful to the kids. Make sure you understand the importance of physical custody and how it affects your child custody order.
Legal custody refers to the authority and responsibility to make important decisions regarding the child’s education, health care, religious training, whether they need academic tutoring or psychological counseling, etc.
During your marriage, you and your spouse probably made these decisions together. A judge doesn’t want the divorce to cause major changes for your children. By default, judges in most states will rule to have parents share legal custody and continue to make decisions together for their children.
Do consider the best interest of the child standard
Family law judges in many states consider a range of factors when determining a custody arrangement that will be in the best interest of the child. Here are a few of those factors of how the court weighs them in terms of awarding custody:
- Each parent’s ability to communicate and cooperate
- Cooperation with the other parent’s custody/visitation time
- False allegations of abuse
- Interactions between minor children, parents and siblings
- Prior domestic violence
- Risk of physical abuse
- Child’s preference (based on age and maturity)
- Child’s needs
- Stability of home environment
- Impact on child’s education
- Parental fitness
- Distance between the parents’ homes
- Quality and quantity of time spent with the child
- Age and number of children
- Parent’s employment responsibilities
Do keep children out of the middle
Divorce is no doubt, really tough on kids. But, there are common destructive behaviors parents should avoid. If the children are teens or even adults when you divorce, be especially careful not to drag them into the middle or use them to send messages to your spouse. Be sure to address any nagging issues directly with your ex-spouse — either alone or with the help of a mediator — rather than using the kids as messengers or sounding boards.
Do think about new holiday traditions
Divorce can sometimes rob a family of certain holiday traditions. Older children can become angry and confused about losing these rituals. Try introducing new traditions, especially around holidays and celebrations of special events, such as birthdays. Also, be sensitive about incorporating new individuals into family groupings.
Do not let your anger get the best of you
The judge doesn’t care how you feel. So, it doesn’t matter if your spouse cheated on you, stole your money or even badmouthed you to all of your friends. A judge will not award you custody because your feelings are hurt. Instead the judge will look at what is in the best interest of the children. As well, if you are heading into divorce proceedings with revenge as your goal, the children will suffer. Use your head, not your heart.
Do not consider custody in the bag
You can be the most loving and most devoted mom on earth and still not get the custody situation you want. So many factors are considered. For example, if your job requires long hours, travel or regular relocations, it could impact your custody time.
Do not assume your child has control
Some states place more emphasis on a child’s custody preference than others, but it is very rare for a judge to allow the child to make the decision as to where to live. Instead, the child’s preference is just one of many factors taken into account.
The child’s age is also an important factor. A five-year-old may not know which parent is better for his or her needs, but a teenager can better articulate his or her wishes to a judge.
Do not vent
You don’t have to hide the fact that you are stressed or that the divorce brings up difficult feelings for you. It’s fine to talk about those things in general ways, without burdening the kids with the details. Try to process your feelings and talk about them in a way that is productive. Encourage your children to do the same. Asking your kids to share their own feelings may help them lose some of the fear and anger they may harbor about the divorce.
Do not do it all on your own
The overwhelming emotion adult children report when they learn their parents are divorcing is loneliness. Support groups in which they can talk with those experiencing similar feelings may be especially helpful in easing this pain. A number of such groups operate online.
When it comes to successfully navigating the divorce and child custody process, you need to be proactive. Do your homework to fully understand the process. Use your head, not your heart and make sure every decision you make is in the best interest of the kids.