What to Consider When Creating a Custody Agreement

Figuring out the best arrangement for you, your ex and most importantly, your children can be challenging. We help you figure out the right approach.

"Where am I going to live?" It's one of the first things kids ask upon hearing that their parents are getting a divorce. Of course, one of the hardest things for you to accept is that there will be days, weeks, and, yes, holidays that won't be spent with your children. Even so, it's important to keep your focus where it matters most. "Ultimately, your children's needs and happiness should be at the center of any custody discussion," says Barry Finkel, a family law attorney who practices in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale. Keep these suggestions in mind as you work with your soon-to-be-ex to come up with a mutually agreeable child custody arrangement.

Consider your children's best interest. Shared physical custody (also known as joint custody) is the most common arrangement among divorced parents today. "Parents split time with the kids fifty-fifty," Finkel explains. This could mean alternating weeks at each parent's house or divvying up the week: For instance, the kids are with their mom Sunday through Wednesday, and with their dad on the other days (or any combination of days). Holidays and school breaks also are factored in. Many courts now refer to this setup as time-sharing. The goal is to minimize disruptions to children's lives, such as day care, school and extracurricular activities, while allowing enough time with each parent for kids to bond and feel secure. Shared custody not only benefits children by providing equal time with both Mom and Dad, it also significantly reduces (or in some cases completely negates) child support payments. Sole custody, in which one parent cares exclusively for the children, is less common and is typically granted only if the other parent is deemed unfit due to an alcohol or drug problem, a history of abuse, or another impairment.

Try to find common ground. If you and your spouse can't reach a resolution on your own, employ the services of a divorce mediator, a neutral third party who helps couples resolve issues like child custody. Ideally, a mediator will save your family from the heartache and expense of a legal battle. "It's very damaging to children to have parents fighting over them and dragging the family through a trial," says Brette Sember, author of How to Parent with Your Ex. "With the help of a mediator, parents hopefully can figure out a workable custodial solution, as well as learn to cooperate with each other so that there is less conflict in their children's lives now and in the future."

Be flexible. You or your ex may find that the arrangement that looked good on paper isn't a good fit for your family after all. Keep the lines of communication open (and not hostile) so that the two of you can tweak the schedule as needed. Some couples include first rights of refusal in their custody agreements. "This means that if you're not able to be with your children during your scheduled time, you must give the opportunity to your ex first before sending the kids to their grandparents or hiring a sitter," Finkel explains. You also need to check in with your children periodically to make sure the arrangement is working for them. (This is not the same as giving them the power to decide which parent they want to spend time with. That should be an adult decision.) As your children move into their teen years and their needs and demands change, they should have more say in their situation. You and your ex may need to revise your plans accordingly.

Know your rights. The custody agreement should state which parent (or both) has a legal say in the children's upbringing. Legal custody is different than physical (joint or sole) custody. A parent with legal custody has the power to make childrearing decisions about schooling, religion, and medical care. Couples who share joint physical custody almost always share legal custody, too. Your agreement also should address how far away your ex may move. Should you or your ex need to relocate farther away at a later time due to a job change, remarriage, or other reason, you'll have to try to come to an agreement together, use the services of a mediator, or go to court.

Coparenting with your ex isn't meant to be an easy solution for you; it's meant to make life easier, more balanced, and happier for your children. Remember: Your marriage may be over, but you are forever a family.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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