The Upsides of Splitting Custody After a Split

Z Family Law blog,

By Jennifer Prizeman, Esquire & Dr. Elizabeth Degi DuBois, PhD

If you’re in the middle of a split and you have kids, you’ve probably got some big questions looming large in your mind. Beyond the actual “how do we split time” question, how to brace yourself for a fight, and the much more existential emotional questions about how to support your kids through a split, the technical legal jargon that surrounds custody cases can make things seem even more overwhelming.

This post demystifies some of the common terminology and technical aspects of Maryland law surrounding custody and explores some of the benefits of joint custody. If you’ve got questions about the terminology and technicalities, read on dear parents…

Maryland Law Regarding Joint Custody

There are two components of custody in Maryland, legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody confers decision-making authority involving important and long-term matters such as religion, discipline, and education. Physical custody involves where the child sleeps and spends time, and includes decision-making authority for everyday needs.

Under Maryland law, custody determinations are child-focused and use the “Best interests of the child” standard. Depending on the circumstances of the case and what is in the best interests of the child, courts can award and combine these two types of custody in a variety of ways. For example, parents can have joint legal custody and shared physical custody, one parent can have sole legal custody but share physical custody with the other parent, one parent can be awarded sole legal and physical custody, and so on.

Maryland courts recognize the potential benefits of joint custody for children and use the factors outlined in Taylor v. Taylor, 306 Md. 290 (1986) to determine if joint or shared custody is appropriate on a case-by-case basis. Courts consider several factors, known as the Taylor factors, to reach a decision regarding joint custody. The most important factors are the;

  • Capacity of the Parents to Communicate and to Reach Shared Decisions Affecting the Child’s Welfare
  • Willingness of Parents to Share Custody
  • Fitness of the Parents

When is Joint Custody Not Appropriate?

The inability to reach an agreement on a parenting plan is not necessarily a bar to granting joint custody. Some level of conflict is likely to exist between most separated parents, but experts distinguish between types of parental conflict: “It is persistent, unresolved conflict that is dangerous for children. And children need to be shielded from violence and abuse.” Circumstances where joint custody is not appropriate include;

  • Serious issues with one parent (uncontrolled addiction or mental health issues)
  • Abuse (physical, emotional, verbal, etc.)
  • Where there is continued, ongoing, unresolved high conflict
  • In Maryland and other states, shared custody is not recommended where parents are wholly unable to communicate or make decisions regarding the children.

Working Toward a Common Goal

Hostility and conflict tend to decrease while parents focus on a common goal — the best interests of the children. Shared parenting provides an incentive for parents to cooperate with each other in creating their parenting plan and custody sharing schedule. There are many ways parents can be supported in this process. Several specialized interventions can assist parents reduce conflict, including therapeutic family mediation, parent education programs, and parenting coordination.

Research on Shared Custody Challenges Assumptions About Children’s Well-Being

There is an emerging consensus among the world’s leading social scientists regarding the many benefits of shared parenting. Except in abusive situations or where they are routinely exposed to severe conflict, children tend to have better overall well-being and mental health when they spend time and maintain a close relationship with both parents.

As shared custody arrangements became more common in recent decades, some wondered whether children’s well-being would suffer from moving back and forth between households. “Child experts and people in general assumed that these children should be more stressed,” but research indicates that any logistical stress from moving between their parents’ homes, is more than compensated by being able to retain a close, loving relationship with both parents.

In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, researchers in Sweden studied 150,000 12 and 15-year-old students by tracking several psychosomatic health problems that are indicators of stress. In Sweden, as well as the United States, shared parenting arrangements have become increasingly common in recent decades. The researchers found that “students who lived with both of their separated parents reported significantly fewer problems than kids who lived with only one parent” and concluded that “children fare better when they spend time living with both of their parents.”

As any parent who shares custody knows, it is often logistically difficult to make sure children have what they need at each home, anticipate their upcoming needs, manage a custody schedule, and communicate important information to the other parent. In short, it might not be convenient to trek back and forth — but it’s worth it.

Another shared custody benefit that social scientists have raised is that parental engagement tends to be higher where children have regular, meaningful contact. Additionally, children who live with both of their separated parents have increased resources and social networks. They have access to not only both parents, but each of their parents’ network of family, friends, community and neighbors.

Is Joint Custody or Shared Parenting Right for Me?

Shared parenting may not be advisable, or even possible, in many situations. In truth, the best custody arrangement depends on your family’s unique needs. A central factor in maintaining a successful shared parenting arrangement is being able to separate prior marital or relationship disputes from parental responsibilities. For many, joint custody helps children maintain a close relationship with both parents. As circumstances change, you can petition the court for a modification of custody and visitation.

The primer above is a great starting point for understanding some of the benefits of joint custody, and the technical terms surrounding Maryland custody law.

The best way to figure out your specific path forward is to find an attorney who is a good fit for your family’s unique circumstances and your goals. Having a legal expert help you sort out what makes sense for you and your kiddos can help ensure that you’re able to focus on taking care of you and your kids’ emotional needs while an attorney takes on the more cumbersome legal strategy question