Many parents going through a divorce action seek joint custody of their children. Regardless of how they feel about their soon-to-be ex-spouses, they know that their children love both parents and need the support and guidance of both their mothers and their fathers. Oklahoma courts agree, finding that, barring the inability of one parent to uphold his or her parental responsibilities, it is generally in the best interest of a child to be in the custody of both parents.
Unfortunately, many of these parents are shocked to find out that “joint custody” does not ensure equal access to their children. Joint custody does not mean that a child’s time is split 50/50 between each parent. So what is joint custody? If it isn’t equal, how is it different from sole custody?
Legal Custody versus Physical Custody
Joint custody typically refers to the legal custody of the child. Legal custody refers to a parent’s legal rights to make decisions about the welfare of the child. Under a joint custody plan, the parents are intended to work together to make such decisions in the best interest of the child. Where will the child attend school? How should medical or dental care be addressed? How will the emotional and mental health needs of the child be met? These are decisions that the parents must make jointly, and such decisions can be made regardless of where the child lives most of the time.
If one parent is awarded sole custody, he or she will be allowed to make those decisions without the input of an unwilling, unable, or uncooperative ex-spouse.
Typically, in cases of both joint legal custody and sole legal custody, the child lives primarily with one parent and receives visitation with the other. This refers to the physical custody of the child.
Standard Visitation Schedules
In Oklahoma, visitation is largely determined according to a Standard Visitation Schedule and Advisory Guidelines. According to 43 O.S. 110.1, it is in the best interest of a child to have “substantially equal” time with both parents:
“It is the policy of this state to assure that minor children have frequent and continuing contact with parents who have shown the ability to act in the best interests of their children and to encourage parents to share in the rights and responsibilities of rearing their children after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage, provided that the parents agree to cooperate and that domestic violence, stalking, or harassing behaviors as defined in Section 109 of this title are not present in the parental relationship. To effectuate this policy, if requested by a parent, the court may provide substantially equal access to the minor children to both parents at a temporary order hearing, unless the court finds that shared parenting would be detrimental to the child.”
Of course, continually bouncing between the homes of two parents can be difficult for a child, and to minimize disruption in a child’s life, “substantially equal” access may not be exactly equal.
In determining a custody plan and visitation schedule, county courts rely upon a standard visitation schedule which considers the following:
- The age of the child
- Parent work schedules
- Geographical distance between the parents’ homes
- Parental responsibility and involvement
- School activities
Standard visitation typically allows for limited or expanded weekend visitation and visitation schedules for holidays and school breaks. Some counties include mid-week visitation, but it is often excluded as a disruption to a child’s schedule.
Limited weekend visitation occurs from 6:00 p.m. on Friday until 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. Unless it is excluded by a parent’s work schedule or geographic location, the courts typically prefer an expanded weekend visitation, which begins when the child is picked up from school on Friday and ends when he or she is dropped off at school on Monday morning. This can also eliminate the need for face-to-face contact between divorced parents who may have difficulty dealing with each other.
Standard visitation schedules may include every other weekend, alternating holidays, and two consecutive weeks in the summer for the non-custodial parent. Visitation schedules in Oklahoma vary by county, but examples can be found beginning on page 17 of the document found here.
Once a divorce decree is granted and custody and visitation requirements are stipulated, it can be extremely difficult to change the decree. It is critical that you reach an optimal agreement about the custody of your children prior to the finalization of your divorce.
At Law Firm of Oklahoma our Oklahoma divorce and custody lawyers are familiar with the visitation schedules for each county, and we can work to maximize the time spent with your children in a joint custody situation. It is better to get the custody situation straightened out early; however, if a significant change in circumstance necessitates a change in the custody decree, we provide strong legal counsel and representation in post-decree modification.
Call to learn more.
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