Decisions about children after parents separate must always be made on the basis of one very important legal principle: What is in the best interests of the child? According to the Parenting After Separation Handbook developed by the Ministry of the Attorney General, province of B.C., there are many advantages when both parents are able to maintain a close relationship with their child:
• Improves the child's emotional well-being and recovery from the separation.
• Aids in the child's healthy emotional development.
• Relieves the child from feeling divided loyalties.
• Alleviates the child's guilt (why doesn't the other parent want to see me?).
• Helps maintain parental authority.
• Promotes parental willingness to provide financial support for the child.
• Gives the child an opportunity to develop an extended family identity.
• Demonstrates that parents can put aside personal differences enough to unite around parenting.
Mom's house, Dad's house
Joint custody (also know as shared custody) does not necessarily mean that the child or children will alternate equal periods of time with each parent. It is simply a commitment to shared parenting. "The child may live one week with the mother and one week with the father, or may have a primary residence with either parent. Joint custody allows input from both parents as to how the child should be raised."
History of joint custody
In the past, if separating parents could not get along or communicate in any meaningful way, judges were reluctant to order joint custody. The courts are now willing to impose on parents the obligation to cooperate around decision-making and to order joint custody even in situations where communication is at a very low level. It is the responsibility of the parent resisting that outcome to prove that joint custody is not in the best interests of the child.
A starting point these days is to assume joint custody and joint guardianship is best for the children. Not all parents agree, but research has shown clearly that the children do best when both parents cooperate and participate in important decisions affecting their children's lives.
A common model of joint custody is where the child spends equal or nearly equal time with each parent. One example is what I call the "week on, week off" model. I recommend it, in most cases, and the children need not be very old to receive benefit from this arrangement provided parents live in close proximity to the children's school. This model works well in many situations when the switchover occurs on Friday afternoons after school. The child takes a larger knapsack with him or her to school and the parents need not have face-to-face contact at the time of the switchover.
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