Many couples today continue to share responsibility for raising children after a divorce or separation. The arrangement is referred to as co-parenting or shared parenting. Your rights as a co-parent are spelled out in a divorce decree or a parenting agreement approved by the court.
To understand your rights, it's important to consider two facets of child custody -- physical custody and legal custody. Where will the children live? Who will make important decisions for and about the children?
The answers to these questions will define whether one parent will exercise sole custody or whether the parents will share joint custody. Often, the arrangement is mixed [source: Nolo]. One parent (known as the custodial parent) may have sole physical custody, but the parents exercise joint legal custody, making decisions together. Or they could share physical and legal custody, with the child moving back and forth between them. A non-custodial parent typically has visitation rights.
Though a court will ultimately approve the arrangement, the custody process need not involve litigation. In many cases, the rights of parents are spelled out in a parenting agreement drawn up by the parents themselves [source: Bennett]. They may decide the best arrangement together, or, in cases of conflict, they may use the services of a professional mediator. If they work out a plan that the court approves, the parenting agreement takes the force of a legal decree. If parents can reach no agreement, the court will impose the terms.
The parenting agreement is critical in determining your rights as a co-parent. It should take into account a number of issues [source: Lawyers.com]:
- With which parent will the child live?
- What visitation rights will the noncustodial parent have?
- Who will make decisions about the child's school, religion and health care?
- Where will the child spend holidays and vacations?
- How will financial responsibilities for the child be divided?
- How will the co-parents settle disputes and deal with changing circumstances?
All of these concerns should be addressed in specific detail. For example, the times and duration of visits need to be scheduled to minimize misunderstandings.
Visitation rights are a frequent source of conflict in co-parenting arrangements. Both parents should recognize that the schedule of visitation cannot be altered by the custodial parent acting alone but needs mutual agreement or the court's approval. Failure to abide by the parenting agreement can lead to a charge of contempt of court. The noncustodial parent must understand that violations of visitation rights do not affect obligations to continue child support payments [source: Lawyers.com].
Now, let's look at some specific co-parenting laws and how they differ by state.