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.
Common Co-parenting Laws
Two trends are having an impact on the rights of co-parents. The first is that the laws and courts of most states now prefer and encourage joint custody whenever possible. The second trend is toward equality of mothers and fathers in custody decrees. In past decades, courts generally awarded custody to mothers, but many states now forbid preference based on the gender of married parents. Almost all co-parenting decisions are now based on "the best interests of the child" [source: Lawyers.com].
Does this mean that the child's wishes are taken into account? That depends largely on the child's age and level of maturity. Young children usually have little say in the matter. However, the preferences of older children can be an important factor in awarding custody and working out other details [source: ABA Family Legal Guide].
Laws governing co-parents' rights are drawn up by the states. A lawyer can advise you about specific laws in your state. Some examples of various state laws are:
- Georgia - A child age 14 or older is allowed to select the parent he or she wants to live with.
- Ohio - The court allocates parental rights to one parent unless one or both parents request shared parenting and files a plan.
- Utah - The court assumes that the spouse who has been abandoned is entitled to custody.
- West Virginia - The parent who has been primary caretaker is usually awarded custody. The state has no provision for joint custody.
What happens if the custodial parent wants to move? If the move is to another city or state, how can the noncustodial parent maintain visitation rights? There is no easy answer to this thorny issue. Some parenting agreements detail what will happen in the event of relocation or set limits on the custodial parent's moves. Some states define a move of a specific distance to be significant. The reason for the move is also an important factor. Courts can deny permission if a move is not in the best interest of the child [source: Lawyers.com].
The rights of parties other than married parents is another factor in co-parenting. For example, what rights does an unmarried father have to his children? In most cases, courts will favor the mother if the parents never married [source: FindLaw]. Grandparents can assert visitation rights in most states and may ask for custody. The custody rights of same-sex couples is an area undergoing change and clarification in some states.
Co-parenting can be a complicated arrangement. To arm yourself with even more information, investigate the links on the following page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- ABA Family Legal Guide. "May a child decide where he or she wants to live?" (Accessed March 11, 2010)http://public.findlaw.com/abaflg/flg-3-4f-6.html
- Baron, Jeff. "Classes Seek to Ease Pain, Legal Headaches of Child Custody Battles." Houston Chronicle. Page 3. August 13, 2001.
- Bennett, Sherrie. "Your Rights as A Noncustodial Parent." (Accessed March 11, 2010)http://family-law.lawyers.com/child-custody/Your-Rights-As-A-Noncustodial-Parent.html
- FindLaw. "Child Custody: Summaries of State Laws." (Accessed March 11, 2010)http://family.findlaw.com/child-custody/custody-forms/state-child-custody-laws.html
- Child Custody Rightshttp://www.divorce-lawyer-source.com/html/custody/rights.html
- Child Custody: Summaries of State Lawshttp://family.findlaw.com/child-custody/custody-forms/state-child-custody-laws
- FindLaw. "Custody and Visitation in Non-Divorce Cases." (Accessed March 11, 2010)http://family.findlaw.com/child-custody/custody-who/custody-nonmarrieds.html
- Lawyers.com. "Child Custody Law." (Accessed March 11, 2010)http://family-law.lawyers.com/child-custody/Child-Custody-Law.html
- Lawyers.com. Enforcing Custody Rights FAQ. (Accessed March 11, 2010)http://family-law.lawyers.com/child-custody/Divorce-Enforcing-Custody-Rights-FAQ.html
- Lawyers.com. "Relocation and Child Custody." (Accessed March 11, 2010)http://family-law.lawyers.com/child-custody/Relocation-and-Child-Custody.html
- Lawyers.com. "Types of Custody -- Joint Custody Checklist." (accessed March 11, 2010)http://family-law.lawyers.com/child-custody/Types-of-Custody-Joint-Custody-Checklist.html
- Nolo. "Types of Child Custody." (Accessed March 11, 2010)http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/article-29667.html
- Scott, Michael. "Co-parenting." (Accessed March 11, 2010)http://www.mediate.com/articles/scottm.cfm