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How Much Visitation Time is Considered “Normal” or “Average?”
Going through a divorce is a difficult process and this is only made more emotional and more stressful when children are involved. When a couple decides to end their marriage and they have children, they must decide who the primary caregiver will be, how their custody will be shared and/or what their visitation time and schedules will be. In the most ideal cases, parents will be able to create their own parenting plan on their own or with the help of mediation outside of the courtroom.
But, some divorces are not that easy and divorcing couples do not see eye to eye on who should have the children. If this is the case, they often are unable to come up with a custody agreement on their own or with mediation. In this situation, the custody agreement is then left up to the family court system and will be decided as part of the couple’s divorce. All family courts and family law judges seek custody agreements that are in the best benefit of the children and not necessarily what the parents desire.
Different Types of Custody Arrangements
Depending on the circumstances surround the divorce, there are a number of different types of child custody the parents or parents can fight for or that will be awarded by the judge:
- Legal Custody: The ability of the parent to make decisions about the children’s lives including schooling, medical, religion, and general upbringing. This does not necessarily mean the parent has physical custody of the children.
- Sole Physical/Full Custody: Custody where one parent is the primary caregiver and has the children the majority if not all of the time.
- Joint Physical Custody: Where both parents share the caregiving responsibilities and custody of the children. Joint physical custody or time with the children is generally split 50/50 between parents.
Full Custody/Visitation Agreements
Family law judges will always do their best to have both parents included in the children’s lives and will strive for the parents to have shared custody. Although this is the goal, it is not always feasible for this type of arrangement to work. Instead, the judge will sometimes award one parent primary physical custody of the children and grant the other parent visitation rights. The parent who has the children the majority of the time is known as the “custodial parent” and the other the “non-custodial parent.”
Both joint custody agreements and primary custody agreements with visitation do offer some flexibility. Regardless of the agreement that is awarded, the ultimate goal is to allow each parent to spend one on one time with the children. When joint custody is awarded, the court will often task the parents on deciding the schedule, encouraging them to take into account their personal work schedules, distance between residents, the children’s schooling and activities and, of course, the children’s well-being.
There is also flexibility with sole-custody agreements or primary custody agreements. The judge will again ask the parents to set a visitation schedule that works for their personal schedules as well as the children’s schedules. Some visitations with the non-custodial parent include weekends, every other weekend, certain holidays and/or special events, and activities. The court will encourage the parents to work together and be flexible with these schedules in order to provide the children with equal time.
Fixed Visitation Agreements
In some cases, having the judge outline the agreement allows the parents to be able to work together to make their own schedule – this is the ideal outcome for the family court system. But, in some cases, the parents are still unable to agree on when they should receive time with the children. This is when the court will pass a judgment for a fixed visitation plan. A fixed visitation plan means that the parents must follow a specific schedule of what parent has the children at what time without any flexibility.
In the most severe of cases, one of the parents may be considered incompetent to care for the children or may be considered a threat or danger to the children’s welfare. In these cases, although the parent still has rights to visit with their children, those visits will have to be supervised by a third party. This individual is most often a counselor, therapist, or child services employee. These types of visits allow the parent to spend time with the children without putting the children’s well-being in jeopardy.
Considerations When Setting Child Custody and Visitations
When the court makes a decision on the custody arrangement for the children and what the visitation schedule will be, they will take a number of factors into consideration:
- Testimony of the Involved Parties
- Testimony of the Children (Depending on Age)
- Parent Serving as Primary Custodian to Date
- Criminal Backgrounds of Both Parents
- Testimony from Therapists, Counselors or Child Services Individuals Involved
Example of Child Visitation Time
In a standard child custody case, where the parents cannot come up with their own parenting plan, the judge will generally award the mother primary custody of the children and grant the father visitation rights. Most states follow the same model for awarding the father visitation time – the father should be allowed 20 percent of the total parenting time. This time can be scheduled in a variety of ways, based on what works for both parents as well as the children’s schooling and other activities.
Changing a Visitation Agreement
It is possible, over the course of time, for parents to want to make changes to their child custody or visitation agreement. Those couples who created their own parenting plan outside of court often do not have to have small changes approved by the family court judge. But, for those couples who have had their visitation agreement created by a family court, any changes to the agreement will need to be presented to and approved by the judge before they can take place. These changes most often happen when one parent’s work schedule changes, if one parent moves, or if one parent is not cooperating with the child visitation agreement, either not allowing the visits to occur or not attending the visits.
Third Party Custody Agreements
In severe divorce or child custody cases, a third party individual or individuals will seek custody of the children in question. This is usually only considered when the third party has had custody of the children to date or both parents are found to be unfit to care for them. While it is possible for third parties to have custody awarded, some states carry what is called a “parental rights doctrine.” This means that, if one or both of the biological parents wishes to have custody of the children, their rights are paramount or taken into more serious considerations than those third party members seeking custody.
Having a consistent schedule is important for children’s mental and emotionally well-being, especially for those who are now becoming part of a divorced family and making large transitions in their little lives. Some couples will seek the assistance of a child visitation lawyer to help them determine a proper schedule. These legal professionals can help one or both parents establish a visitation schedule that is fair and honors the rights of both the custodial and non-custodial parent.