You have probably heard about divorced couples engaging in bitter legal battles over which one of them will have custody of the couple’s children. You might also know someone who stays in an unhappy marriage because he or she fears that, upon divorce, he or she will be ordered to pay hefty child support payments and have the court meddle in his or her finances for years, while being forced to give up the rights to make decisions about his or her children’s upbringing. In reality, child custody is rarely an all or nothing situation. Likewise, Florida courts do not impose child support obligations as a way to punish parents. In making decisions about custody and child support, judges are to consider the children’s best interest above all else and to determine how to promote the children’s interests in a way that is feasible for both parents.
There is No One Size Fits All Parenting Plan
It is rare in Florida that judges award sole custody of the children to only one parent. Besides, the word “custody” has more than one meaning in Florida law. Physical custody refers to where and with whom the children reside most of the time, whereas legal custody refers to who has the authority to make important decisions about the children. Legal custody includes the right to choose which school the children attend, which medical treatments they receive, and which religious activities they participate in, among other important decisions. It is technically possible for one parent to have more time with the children while the other has the last word about their education and extracurricular activities.
Divorced couples with children must file Form 12.995(a) with the courts; couples who have children together but have never been married to each other must also file this form. The form, called a parenting plan, contains many details about physical and legal custody. Clearly, child custody is not a yes/no question, since the parenting plan form, minus instructions, is 13 pages long. The parents (or the judge, if the parents cannot agree) indicate how many nights per year the children spend with each parent and how to divide the responsibility of transporting the children to the other parent. They can even assign a certain number of nights with the children to another relative. The parenting plan sets out in detail where the children will spend each day of each school break. As for decision making, each decision (school choice, non-emergency medical treatment, day care, extracurricular activities, etc.) is a separate item. In fact, it deals with every aspect of parenting except child support payments.
Every family is unique, so no two parenting plans are alike. Some families even choose an option called bird’s nest custody. In this arrangement, the children stay in the family home, while each parent spends a different part of the week there. This type of custody arrangement is quite rare. It only works if the spouses can cooperate well with each other. It is also virtually impossible if one or both parents remarries, as it would be disruptive to the stepparents.
Let Alan R. Burton Help You Navigate Your Parenting Plan
Alan R. Burton is a Palm Beach County family lawyer. Contact Alan Burton with questions about your child custody or child support case, no matter how complex.