It used to be that Sole Custody of the kids was something many mother’s fought for in divorce. It meant control and freedom. It meant distance from conflict. It was a goal when one parent wanted to control the children’s schedule and lives or protect them. And sometimes the goal in winning it was to punish an ex for having hurt you.
But the key to deciding whether or not to fight for Sole Legal or Physical Custody is looking at how the other parent treated the kids during marriage. If he or she was abusive or violent or had substance abuse problems, the courts may side with the steadier parent and award Sole Custody. Otherwise, the court’s primary goal is to give the kids as many positive adult influences as possible. And that includes input from both parents.
Best Interest Factors
When determining Joint vs. Sole Custody, the courts will look at many factors that could impact the children’s health and emotional well-being. These items are called the Best Interest Factors and are outlined in the Child Custody Act of 1970. The basics are: the existing emotional ties and stability of the home; the capacity and likelihood of each parent providing for the children’s needs; the physical and mental health and moral fitness of each parent; the children’s school and community records; the interests of the children; the commitment to maintaining the child’s connection with the other parent and siblings; and domestic violence.
Custody vs. Visitation
It’s important to remember that Sole Custody does not equal completely eliminating an ex from your children’s lives. Legal Custody means decision-making. Those with Sole Legal Custody make all of the educational, financial, legal, religious, and medical choices on behalf of the children until they reach the age of majority (usually 18). But that does not mean that the other parent has no contact or influence over the children. There may still be the opportunity for visitation. So even with Sole Custody, the non-custodial parent may still have rights to visit and speak with the children. The only way this privilege is revoked is if it is proven that the parent is a danger to the kids. Even if a parent is shown to have anger issues or alcohol or drug abuse, visitation (albeit potentially supervised) may be awarded as long as treatment is pursued.
It may hurt to think of your ex parenting the kids differently than you. Whether it’s bedtimes or cell phones, we all want to believe that our choices are best. And we don’t like the thought of a nemesis questioning or undercutting our best-laid plans. However, statistics show that across the board, kids with two parents involved in their lives get better grades, avoid drugs and teenage pregnancy, and stay out of jail. When thought of in these terms, those who truly want the best for their kids should be seeking as much input as possible from the other parent.
This message may be especially hard to process for a parent who, during marriage, essentially had Sole Custody because the other parent was removed or emotionally absent either by choice or work demands. But know that divorce is hard on children. In order to come through it well-adjusted, they need as many people loving and supporting them as possible. That includes a formerly distant spouse. Maybe he was dismissive and never did the laundry. Maybe she worked excessive hours and didn’t go to school plays. Now though, faced with losing contact, they may be more motivated. Perhaps they formerly felt intimidated or like their parenting was being judged. Now, with freedom to parent independently, they may seek a more active role in the kids’ lives. That should be encouraged and celebrated.
Stereotypical mother/father roles
The divorce stereotypes of moms winning Sole Custody and dads losing touch with the kids are gone. A visit to any pediatrician’s waiting room will tell you that fathers are taking an active role in their children’s lives. Gone are the archaic times of dads’ involvement being limited to shaving instruction, auto mechanics and coaching sports. 2015 Dads plan birthday parties, braid hair and buy posterboard for school projects. And they feel fulfilled doing so. What this means for divorcing parents is that the father role cannot be filled by a once-a-month visit from a well-meaning uncle. All kids, boys and girls, are more apt to thrive with involved dads in their lives.
Help for High Conflict Co-Parenting
Rather than trying to eliminate one side of parenting conflict by seeking Sole Custody, try fixing the interactions. It’s well known that contentious divorce sometimes breeds contentious co-parenting. Power struggles during marriage are not going to disappear afterward. Sometimes exes don’t agree. Sometimes exes are difficult, overbearing, rude, mean and demanding. There’s help for it. There are programs like ADEPT (After Divorce Effective Parenting Together) throughout Southeast Michigan that offer training and counseling for ex-spouses trying to navigate high-conflict co-parenting. Programs like ADEPT set up communications strategies for avoiding conflict. Although the thought of therapy may not be pleasant, it’s for the good of the kids.
Sole Custody can be Lonely
Finally, remember that Sole Custody may not only be tough on the kids, but tough on the custodial parent too. “Sole” only has positive connotations when it is attached to the word “custody.” And then only when Sole Custody is sought for the right reasons – protecting the kids from destructive, violent or harmful influences. Otherwise, sole is an isolating word. The definition being, “one and only.” The alternate meanings are “alone, unaccompanied, secluded.”
Those with Sole Custody have independence, yes. But the flip side of that independence is a lack of back up. Think long-term. What if a son, years down the road, feels neglected by the father’s absence and turns on the mom who he perceives pushed dad away? What if a daughter, feeling ungrounded by motherlessness, seeks attention by running with the wrong crowd? Often in marriage and co-parenting, there is a nurturer and a hammer. When one is absent, the short-term goals of avoiding fights are met, but the child may be missing the other influence. It’s a rare parent who can combine both sides of the equation successfully. And even when they do, it can be exhausting.
In seeking Sole Custody, a parent may think they are claiming the kids and that custody equals attachment. They may believe that since they are doing all the hard work and sacrificing, the kids will appreciate their selflessness and feel closer to them. The ironic thing is that kids can’t tell the difference between a parent pulling them closer vs. pushing the other parent away. All they know is that formerly they had two parents in their lives and now they have one. And if they find out that one parent argued for Sole Custody, they may resent him or her for it. Then there’s another whole dynamic to deal with.
Separate divorce from custody battle
It’s one thing to want to get back at an ex by fighting for assets or sentimental trinkets. It’s another to harm the kids in the process. And seeking Sole Custody when it is not warranted, does damage to the kids. Deep down, consider the true reasons for seeking Sole Custody. Make sure they are purely driven by the kids’ best interests. Keep in mind, divorce may be about the adults but custody is about the kids.
The experienced White Lake Custody Attorneys at Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates can help clients determine what custody situation would be in the children’s best interests as well as the parents. Contact the Milford, Michigan office at 248-676-1000 for more information about sole custody. The Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates lawyers help clients throughout Southeastern Michigan including Oakland, Wayne, Washtenaw, Livingston and Genesee counties. We handle cases in Milford; Highland; Hartland; White Lake; Walled Lake; Commerce Township; Waterford; Howell; South Lyon; Linden; Grand Blanc; Holly; and many more local communities.
Written and Posted by Christine Donlon Long, Communications’ Specialist for Kathryn Wayne-Spindler & Associates