Who will get the children in the divorce?

How do I get custody of my children?

Can my ex keep my children away from me?

Questions about how parents will get child custody after either a divorce or in a paternity case are usually the first things new clients ask.  And for good reason.  Children are the most important part of any family law case.   Children grow up before you know it and parents will not get a second chance to raise their kids.  So, since child-related issues are our most discussed topic, it is only fitting that it be the topic of our inaugural blog post.

Before we dive any deeper, I would like to address the term “custody”.  I have titled this blog post Child Custody in Jacksonville and Northeast because most people (i.e. non-lawyers) use the term “custody” when referring to child-related matters.  And for good reason.  For decades, and in popular culture, custody was the correct term.  However, in recent years, legislatures and lawyers, in their infinite wisdom, have taken to using the term “timesharing” instead.  The reason for the change is that “custody” implies that one parent generally “gets” the children and the other parent was only able to occasionally visit with them.  Although that may have been true decades ago, modern courts recognize that parents have the right to share time with their children.  Hence the friendlier sounding term, “timesharing”.  For the rest of this post, I will use the more modern term.  Partly because I am now conditioned to using it, but mostly because timesharing more accurately reflects how most parents will end up spending time with their children.

Although timesharing (or custody) refers to how the parents spend time with their children, what the parents think is best is not the primary consideration.  Courts are required to decide a timesharing arrangement that is in the best interest of the children.  Not what works best for the parents.  What one parent wants may not be best for the children.  What may work best for one family may not work for another.  There is no pre-determined scheduled.  However, in Jacksonville (as well as in Clay and Nassau counties), the judges have prepared guidelines for local and long-distance timesharing that are designed to provide the judges, attorneys and, most importantly, the parties with a starting point for timesharing.  For the purpose of this post, I will stick to the local timesharing guidelines which deal with parents that live within 50 miles of each other.  These guidelines will not work for parents who live farther apart and I will save that discussion for a future post.  Click over to our Resources page to take a look at the guidelines for yourself.

In broad strokes, the guidelines designate a “majority parent” and a “non-majority”.  Please pardon the legalese, but lawyers just cannot help themselves.  While these terms seem harken back to the older “custody” days, when one parent, usually the Mother, that is not simply not the case.  One parent receives about 60% of the overnights during the year and the other receives the remaining 40%.  There is no longer a gender bias and it is certainly not uncommon for Fathers to be designated the majority parent.

According to the guidelines, during the week, the “non-majority” parent receives an overnight on Thursday, from after school until school resumes on Friday morning.  On the weekends, that parent would pick the children up from school on Friday every-other-weekend and return them to school on Monday morning.  Effectively, the non-majority parent receives one overnight every week and a long weekend (from Thursday after school through Monday morning) every other weekend.  The majority parent receives the remaining week days and the alternating weekends.

However, this split only takes place during the school year (parents of young children still follow the local school calendar until they reach school age).   Each parent equally receives equal time during school holidays (either by splitting the breaks in half or alternating them annually) and during the summer.  During the summer, the guidelines recommend that parents alternate their time weekly, with the non-majority parent picking the children up from school on the Friday after school gets out for the summer and exchanging each week thereafter.   This allows for vacations, uninterrupted bonding time, and it reduces the number of exchanges during the summer; all things that are more difficult to accomplish during the hustle and bustle of the school year.

Keep in mind that these guidelines are simply that, a guide to figuring out what is in the best interest of the children.   For many children, spending equal time with each parent is the best arrangement.   Equal timesharing (sometimes called 50/50 timesharing) has become more and more popular for several reasons.  The first, and most obvious, is that it removes the “majority” and “non-majority” labels.  Neither parent has any more time and the children have equal opportunity to learn and grow with each parent.   The second is that it allows for a more predictable schedule.  Instead of having a school year and a summer schedule, the equal timesharing arrangement continues throughout the year.  This establishes a consistent routine for the children.  It also promotes predictability to make travel plans, visit with extended family, and to develop family traditions.

There are several different equal timesharing arrangements.  The most common is that each parent receives a week with the children, exchanging on Fridays.  This minimizes the number of exchanges and the amount of stuff that needs to go back and forth between the different houses (toys, clothes, etc.).  Some families will modify this arrangement so that each parent has an overnight on Wednesday during the other parent’s week.  That way, neither parent has to go so long between visits.   Other options include one parent receiving every Monday and Tuesday overnight, the other receiving every Wednesday and Thursday overnight, and the parents alternating the weekends.

In other cases, it may be appropriate for the children to spend more time one parent during the school year than outlined in the guidelines.   Sometimes a parent’s work schedule prevents overnight timesharing.  In other cases, a parent may live too far away from a child’s school to keep them overnight during the school week.  In those cases, a dinner date (from after school or work until 8:00 p.m. or so) once per week may be more appropriate.  Obviously, in cases where there are fitness issues with one parent (domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health, etc.) then supervised or limited visitation may be appropriate.

Every family is unique.  It is impossible to predict what a judge may order or what your co-parent may agree too.  However, I hope this blog post gives you an idea of what you may expect when contemplating a separation or before meeting with a lawyer.   Gone are the days where one parent only gets limited time with the children.  Most families, at least in Jacksonville, are going to have substantial timesharing with their children.   However, there is no guarantee and it is important to speak with your lawyer about your particular circumstances.   You never want to assume an outcome, particularly when it comes to your children.