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The Best Approach to Handling Child Custody in Florida

Parents going through a divorce have a difficult task in front of them.

In most cases at least one of the parents is surprised by the divorce.  Emotions such as anger and  betrayal are running high. Often extremely damaging events have taken place between the two parents such as violence, cheating that leave the relationship in tatters, and leading to the inevitable divorce. Where once there were feelings of love, intimacy, caring and alignment there is now indifference, anger, or even contempt. And yet you have children together!

Now you are wondering if that other parent could be so hurtful, so angry, so crazy, then we must be gunning towards a custody battle, right?
Child Custody

Social Science and Children Of Divorce

Us lawyers, we are trained to do battle.  90-95% of the education we recieve is about how to handle adversarial conflict, and very rare is the legal education that focuses on settlement, rehabilitation, and what happens after our work is done.

The law we have focuses on the overnights and decision making authority with the children. So you can see how the system, if your not careful, can increase conflict instead of resolving conflict. But there is a problem with that.

Social Science has done quite a bit of research looking into how divorce and parental seperation affects children. And it has come to one shocking conclusion: The most important factor to predict how well children will adjust and succeed after a divorce is the level of conflict between the parents. The more conflict between the parents, the more likely the children will be hurt.

To put it into perpective, of the top 7 factors that predict how well children will adjust after the divorce the conflict level is number one. The residential timesharing plan (ie. where the children sleep at night) is Number 7!

Yet with a few wrong turns, the parents in a divorce can end up in high end litigation over the number of nights each parent spends with the children. And this sort of drawn out litigation almost always promotes conflict between the parents by pitting them for extended periods of time as adversaries.

Of course, there are cases with impaired parents that require an intervention or litigation up front to install a safety focused parenting plan. But for the vast majority of cases, your children’s future success is directly tied to the level of conflict you have after the divorce.

Recognizing that Custody Plans Are Not “One and Done” Events

An important concept to grasp from the beginning is that custody planning for your children is not a single event winner take all event but rather a mulitple “game” experience that will continue for years after your youngest is 18. Some people view a parenting plan and the Order from the Judge as a single event. You either get what you want. Or you don’t.  And you have to live with the plan for ever. But that does not have to be the case.

Rather, consider that your relationship with the other parent will continue for many years to come.  Ideally, you will both be there to sit together at your child’s wedding. More practically, you’ll both be able to sit in the same section at your child’s wedding.

And in the many years to come there will be countless parenting events that will take place.  You will renogotiate with the other parent hundres or even thousands of times in the next couple of decades.

Consider future schooling decisions, who purchaes the prom dress, first vehicles, keeping a unified front when disciplining, extra-curriculars, vacations, and more.

The particular schedule for overnights that you have today may be completely innapropriate a few years down the road.  Perhaps you have a different work schedule. Or perhaps your child’s needs have changed.

What this all means is conflict should be kept to an absolute minimum.  When you go through this process, you are going to identify principles and areas of parenting agreement first, and look for ways to resolve those in a mutually beneficial way.  Only then will we identify the areas of disagreement and negotiate a final resolution.  Finally, we will look to install procedures into the parenting plan for solving unanticipated problems in the future.

This process starts with identifying and planning your goals for your children.

Planning Your Goals For Your Children

What are your goals for the children in the future. Don’t think, “To have them with me all of the time”.  That is not a goal. It is a position. If you have a position, ask yourself “Why” that position matters to you.  For example, you might have the following goals:

  •  To maximize the bond between the child and each parent.
  • To maximize the stability for the child.
  • To have a child who thrives in the divorce and is a successful member of society.
  • To have frequency in contact with the child.

By identifying and planning goals, we can then see where each parent agrees during negotiations. We might find some fantastic alternatives for our residential schedules and decision making that is alligned with the goals.

A Case Study Example

Consider the following.

During the marriage both Mom and and Dad worked. However, Mom carried the brunt of the child rearing activities, as Dad put in my hours at the office and utlimately, made more money as a result.

When the parents seperated, Dad genuinely wanted to maximize the time with his chidren. His planning goal was to have frequent time with the children so as to increase his bond with them. He envisioned equal time with the children or something close.

Mom wanted Dad to be involved.But Mom big goal was to minimize destructions for the children. She wanted stability and consistency. She envisioned the children spending every other weekend and maybe a dinner every week with Dad.

If Dad had begun the negotiations by taking the positiion that he wanted equal timesharing, what would happen next? Presumably Mom would be shocked, and state that she wanted every other weekend with Dad and maybe dinner.

Dad would want to support his position, so he would accuse Mom of limiting his time with the children during the intact marriage. Mom would want to support her position, so she would point out how little Dad was involved during the marriage.

Most likely, this case would impasse, ie. there would not be a settlement and the path for litigation would be set. Consider:

Dad’s worst case scenario is every other weekend.  Why would he settle for his worst day in Court. Now that the positions are out there, it makes sense for Dad to go to Court.

Mom’s worst case scenario is 50/50.  Why would she settle for her worst day in Court.  Now that the positions are out there it makes sense for Mom to go to Court.

Of course, the parties might realize that Court is an expensive proposition and start to Budge to a settlement. Maybe they start trading a day out here or there. Ie Dad will take one less day if Mom gives one more day.

This works,  but is it really ideal?  Is this the best way to figure out your kids plan?  And what happens with the other issues like holiday timesharing? Does this increase animosity between the parents?

There is a better approach that will increase the chances of a successful resolution and also reduce conflict between the parties.

In this example, we started the negotiation by having our client (Dad) explain what he wanted from a child planning perspective.

Dad really wanted the frequency of time with the children. Dad believed as long as he was getting frequent contact, he would be in the best position to strengthen his relationship with his children.

As it turned out, Mom really did want to maximize the stability of the children.. But she had already factored in the child support money she needed to meet her monthly budget. During the marriage, she had sacrificed her career a bit and was not making strong money. It irritated Mom that she did all that work and Dad wanted to come on and have lots of time now, while she had to pinch her pennies.

And frankly, Mom had a legitimate concern that Dad would not be able to get the kids to school in the morning. His job always required him to leave early. Was Dad going to leave late and come home early? She did not think so.

And in Florida, our child support law says that support goes up or down based on the overnights.  If Dad had every other weekend, the child support to Mom would be close to $1200.00.  But equal timesharing put the support number down to $500.  And Mom was going to have a difficult time swinging it.

But once we figured out the true concerns, we were able to focus on a resolution that worked for both parties.

During the school week, Dad kept the childrenl overnight so that it was close to an equal timesharing, but Dad brought the children back in the morning before school to Mom’s house.  Mom stayed in the marital home that was right up the road from the school.  Mom helped by getting the kids ready and doing their normal morning routine. Dad of course committed as part of our agreement to getting homework done at the same time Mom had traditionally gotten that done in the evening.

Importantly, Dad agreed to calculate the child support as if the children spent the night with Mom.  Dad recognized that Mom needed a little extra support; she did sacrifice a bit in her career for the children and, if she was getting them ready and sending them to school every day, she would not have any early mornings at the office.

The result was an agreement that both parties could live with. Because the parties were working in concert on the residential schedule, they really worked well on remaining aspects of the parenting plan, setting up creative procedures and rules to addrss future disagreements so they did not need to go back to attorneys and reopen the case.

Now we have intentionally focused on the child planning issues before addressing the legal issues. But the legal elements are part of a parenting plan and important nonetheless.  Let’s go through them now.

The Legal Issues:  Decision making and Overnights

This is a difficult topic because people entering the divorce process have a preconceived notion of what child custody or sole responsibility means that is completely different from the legal definition in Court.

So let’s take a second to look at and learn the two big concepts in Florida child custody: Parental Responsibility and Time sharing.

Parental Responsibility/ Decision Making:

Florida divorce law recognizes that both parents are natural guardians of their minor children and have natural equal rights of child custody, care and control.

But Florida has created a court-ordered relationship called shared parental responsibility.

This relationship legally defines that both parents retain full parental rights and responsibilities regarding their children and work together to make mutual decisions about the children.

In other words, shared parental responsibility just legally ratifies what has been the case all along: that regardless of where the child sleeps at night, both parents are responsible to work together to make big decisions about the future of their children.

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Now, Florida presumes that shared parental responsibility is the right situation for every situation. But in some (fortunately, very few) cases, it might be better for the children for one parent to have sole parental responsibility over all decisions related to the children.

In these rare cases, a Judge can make a specific finding that the parent’s sharing in the decision making for the children would be detrimental to their well-being, and award one of the parents sole decision making authority.

But stop for a second and really think of what that means: For a court to give one parent all of the say in making decisions for the child or children, the Judge will need to bring down his gavel in Court and make a written finding that letting both parents work together would be detrimental to the children.

And this is a difficult task!

So we know sole parental responsibility is a difficult thing to get in Court. But what about the situation when two parents are really struggling to co-parent and cannot agree on a single thing? Just that stereotypically ugly scenario where both parents are capable of making decisions for the child or children, but they just can’t seem to do it together.

In these cases, the Court may grant ultimate decision-making authority over specific aspects of the child’s welfare to one person.

So for example, if Mom and Dad just refuse to talk about where Johnny will go to school, or whether he needs braces, and it becomes detrimental to Johnny, the Court may decide to split the baby (figuratively) and let Mom make the decision on Johnny’s school and Dad decide on the braces.

Again, it is important to mention that the Court does not want to do this sort of thing, and will only do so after a full hearing on the issue.

So now that you have a good view of shared and sole parental responsibility, let’s discuss the separate and distinct issue of where the children spend their nights, or the concept of time sharing.

Closeup of mom and son holding hands, hands and arms only

Closeup of mom and son holding hands, hands and arms only

Timesharing

Rest assured that when this is all over, your divorce documents will have a specific timetable which spells out exactly which times, including overnights and holidays, your children will spend with Mom or Dad.

This is a timesharing plan. It will be found in a specific document called a parenting plan. Whether you agree on your parenting plan or a Judge makes it for you, it will spell out the custody arrangement for your children – if done correctly.

We often hear clients say that they want their residence to be the primary residence of the child. However, while we understand what our clients mean when they say this, Florida has eliminated the legal idea of a primary and secondary residence for children.

Rather, we just have a timetable spelling out X number of overnights with Mom and Y overnights with Dad. At the end of the day, the total number of overnights with both parents should equal 365 days.

And really importantly: Florida is clear that there is NOT a specific default plan that is best for all families.

That means that the traditional, old, every other weekend and one dinner with Dad during the week is not mentioned or recognized anywhere in Florida law.

On the flip side, the idea of 50/50 or “equal time sharing” is also not recognized anywhere in Florida law.

Florida law is clear: Every family is unique. Thus, every unique family deserves the time and attention it takes to craft a specific timesharing plan that is best for the children, and is also tailored to best fit the needs of each unique family.

However, it is important to understand that while Florida does not have any preconceived notions as to what parenting plan is appropriate, different Judges might and do. It is important to understand a particular Judge’s Modus Operandi when trying to negotiate a parenting plan with your spouse – and certainly before going to Court.

Now while Florida does not give us specific timesharing schedules, we do know a few basic principles that can help us out.

These include:

  1. The closer the timesharing comes to equal timesharing, the greater the importance of close proximity of the each parent’s homes. This is an important consideration: Our firm has seen countless cases where a parent has expressed a strong desire or belief that equal timesharing would be best for their case, but then moves 45-60 minutes away from the child’s school. Consider the difficulties that come with transportation to school, extra-curricular activities, and spending time with friends when the two residences are so far apart.
  2. An every other weekend and one evening per week for dinner encourages a “guest-host” relationship between minority parent and child, and is probably not appropriate when you have two very active and involved parents. This is especially true when the child is very young and needs more frequent contact with each parent than the schedule allows.
  3. You can be as flexible as you want with the timesharing plan if you can negotiate the plan. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the needs of a child will change as he or she grows. When two parents are able to work with their lawyers and work out a plan together, they can make the plan as flexible as they want. Unfortunately, if the parents can’t agree and the case goes in front a Judge to determine the plan, the Judge will be much more restrictive and less flexible. The Judge is, after all, a stranger to your family.
  4. While you want to embrace flexibility where possible, it is still important to delineate a specific schedule for your children. This will provide a consistent routine that will not only ease the trauma of the separation for the children, but also provide consistency and routine in their lives. Not to mention, if both parents have an actual calendar available to show where the children are spending each night, it will greatly reduce the potential for conflict.

Whenever possible, your goal should be to reach an agreement with your spouse regarding custody – meaning that the Judge did not have to decide what the custody plan will be in your case. While Judges try very hard to understand individual situations, they lack in-depth knowledge of your family and your personal creativity in crafting the custody agreement or parenting plan.

custody

Settlement: The Path to an Agreement

While your goal will be to reach a divorce agreement with your spouse, recognize that it may take some time and work get there. It is common for two parents to be so far apart in agreement at the beginning of a divorce case that it feels destined that the Judge will need to decide the facts of the case. With patience, problem solving, and hard work, the vast majority of custody cases that seem contested will find themselves on a path to an agreement.

To put your case on the right path towards a custody agreement, first be open with your spouse about what your primary concerns are for the children. Do not start by taking a position at the beginning.  An example of a position is, “I want 50/50 custody”, or “I want the children to be with me during the week. You can have every other weekend”.

Positions are a horrible way to negotiate settlement. In effect, you are beginning the process of negotiation by drawing a line in the sand.  Your spouse will promptly do the same. And working on an agreement becomes almost impossible.

It is not surprising to see cases in contested litigation where the parents are fighting in part because they did not communicate each other’s positions well enough.

Remember, you will be dealing with the other parent until your youngest child reaches 18. It is vital to develop good communication together on parenting now before it’s too late.

If you want to have more overnights with your child than your spouse thinks is appropriate, be sure to take every opportunity you can to be with your children. Actions speak louder than words: if you have traditionally left the majority of child care duties to the other spouse, you may be able to reach an agreement faster by showing that you can handle the extra child care responsibilities.

Do not behave in a way that suggests you are trying to unnecessarily restrict the other parent’s ability to spend quality time with your children. Should the case end up in front of the Judge, the Court will be looking to see if you are encouraging a good relationship with your child and the other parent. This is a concern that is so important it is listed at the top of the child custody statute.

Establishing a Temporary Custody Agreement

Even if you cannot agree on a full custody agreement early in the process, use your lawyers to see if they can create a temporary plan to bridge the gap between separation and the conclusion of the divorce. A temporary plan spells out a basic framework or custody plan that will provide both parents and children with peace of mind by knowing what to expect. Having a temporary custody plan will also give the parents a “starting place” to start working by trial and error to see what parenting plan is appropriate for both parties.

Working To an Agreement Even If You Disagree on the Custody Plan

We cannot stress this enough: even if it looks like you will never have a custody agreement with your spouse, continue to take the high road and work towards an agreement. At the end of the day, only 10-20 percent of cases have to go in front of a judge for a final determination of child custody. The rest are resolved by agreement.

That said, an agreement might take many months to resolve. In fact, more than once our divorce lawyers have resolved custody agreements on the courthouse steps. But the plain truth is that nobody is ever happy when the Judge makes the final call when it comes to custody matters. A great first step on the path to co-parenting is to give it your best shot to find a win-win resolution to custody with an agreed upon child custody plan.

The beauty of Florida law is that the Judges are truly and genuinely more concerned with a parent’s good parenting actions leading up to the divorce than a parent’s bad parenting actions. The Judges want to award more timesharing to the parent that is willing to work with the other parent to benefit the children. So, by focusing on doing the right thing and seeking agreement where possible, you are actually helping to build your case for your lawyers just in case you can’t broker an agreement and need to go to Court.

Father Holding Daughter's Hand

Agreeing on a Parenting Plan

The agreement you reach on custody will be boiled down in a parenting plan. While the plan will address parental responsibility and timesharing, it will also take care of other important issues like:

Information Sharing: In almost all cases both parents will have rights to access important documents like health records, school attendance records, reports cards and the like. Your custody agreement should include this.

Holidays: Will you split winter break or will you keep the regular schedule and just split Christmas? What about Easter and Thanksgiving? The Parenting Plan will establish holiday and break arrangements.

Right of First Refusal: With younger children, what happens when a parent has to leave the child in the care of a sitter? At what point should that parent have to pick up the phone to see if the other parent wants to take that time? This is the idea of the Right of First Refusal, and most parenting plans address this issue.

Communication: Should each parent have open communication with the children when they are off with the other parent? Is there enough animosity that we need to have specific times and modes of communication? Who is going to pay for the cell phone and the data plan? Most parenting plans will address communication rules.

Exchanges: If mom and dad live in different neighborhoods, how are we going to handle custody exchanges? Will one parent do all of the driving, or will it be split equally? If one parent does most of the driving, will they be compensated for doing so?

Relocation: While child custody relocation is addressed by Florida law, the parents can discuss the issue in the parenting plan.

Long distance travel: What are the ground rules for out of state or out of country travel? If one parent is moving out of state, how will the parents handle plane fare? A good custody agreement will address these issues.

Reviewing the Florida Parenting Plan Form.

 

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