Jan L. Warner & Jan Collins
Question: My husband and I separated on a friendly basis about a year ago. He has been paying me enough support to take care of our two children. I work full-time, but take good care of our children (ages 8 and 10) who are doing well. My husband sees them once or twice per month, and has never complained about the way I care for the children. I began dating another man several months ago just for some companionship and to be with another adult. My husband found out, became irate, and now tells me that because I am unfit, he is going to sue for custody. How can I stop this nonsense?
Answer: Oftentimes, an angry parent – or one who wants a tool to better negotiate the financial aspects of the marriage -- threatens custody litigation without a good faith basis. One thing leads to another and, before you know it, the two of you are dealing with and paying lawyers, guardians, and mental health professionals; having every negative aspect of your lives made public; going through months -- even years -- of litigation in overburdened courts; spending inordinate amounts of money that has been borrowed or taken from the sale of assets; and, in some instances, entering a process that causes unnecessary, yet irreversible damage to the children.
Before a claim for child custody is made, there should be enough basic investigation to determine whether there is sufficient evidence on which to base a claim – that is, to present sufficient evidence to a judge. And if made, the purpose should be to do what is best for the children. If your only vice is an occasional date that does not impact the children, we believe that your husband should rethink his threat. If he doesn’t, you will have no choice but to hire a good matrimonial lawyer to protect yourself.
Question: I met with my lawyer about settling my case, and he threw out a number of terms regarding how to deal with our children -- physical custody, legal custody, and joint custody – without explaining what they mean.
Answer: "Physical custody" means that the children live with one parent who has the responsibility for day-to-day decisions about their day-to-day welfare -- such as curfew, study time, etc. The parent who does not have physical custody will generally have "visitation rights" or, as some prefer to call it, "secondary physical custody."
"Legal custody," on the other hand, brings with it the authority to make important long-term decisions about education, religion, and routine medical care. Where appropriate, parents can share the right to make certain decisions for the children, and “legal custody” can be joint or divided in appropriate situations.
Depending on the circumstances, parents can have joint legal custody (where both parents have input into long-term decisions) and sole physical custody, and vice versa. And there can be joint physical custody where, for example, parents either alternate weeks or months with the children or divide the children's time unequally, but in a manner that meets their needs. However, joint custody is not appropriate in every case and should not be granted if parents are not able to communicate.
Bottom Line: The variations are almost limitless. But invariably, parents who can keep open the channels of communication and work out the terms themselves can usually be more creative and flexible than court decisions that are made when parents can't agree.