By: Alan Freed
“I’ve done my internet research and Missouri is a 50/50 state, right?” Foster (not his real name) came into my office for his initial consultation loaded with tidbits of legal knowledge he had gathered from that great common trough of information and misinformation known as the internet, and he sought my confirmation of what he was entitled to under the law. I had to let him down easy.
“Before I talk about what the law says,” I told him, “tell me a little bit about your family.”
“We have three kids,” Foster replied, “seven, five, and three. Myrna has been staying home with them since Rufus, our seven-year-old, was born, but with the divorce, she’s going to have to get a job.”
“What has been your role in taking care of the children?” I asked him.
“I travel a lot for work,” he told me, “and even when I’m in town, I have dinner meetings, so some days I don’t see the kids at all. I usually catch up with them over the weekends, when I coach soccer and share transportation duties with Myrna. So when do I start my joint custody?”
I defined a few terms for Foster. “Custody” is the term Missouri uses to describe parental rights. “Legal custody” refers to how major decisions for the children are made. If one parent alone has the power to make decisions, the arrangement is called “sole legal custody.” When parents share that responsibility, the legal term is “joint legal custody.” Missouri’s child custody statutes encourage both parents to be involved in major decision-making.
“Physical custody” describes the time-sharing arrangements, the schedule that tells the parents when each of them is “on-duty” or “off-duty.” Missouri law expresses a preference for children to have “frequent, continuing, and meaningful” contact with both parents, but it does not require courts to divide the children’s time between both parents equally. “Joint physical custody” doesn’t automatically mean equal time; it means both parents have significant time with the children.
I asked Foster whether he was prepared to cut down on his travel and dinner meetings to accommodate parental responsibilities during the week. “That’s going to be tough,” he told me. “I’ve spent years building up my business, and now money will be tighter than ever. I figured I’d get my parents to help me out.”
I explained to Foster that courts are required to consider many factors in determining what parenting arrangements make the most sense, and that, in light of his unavailability during the week, equal time might not be the best plan. I suggested focusing on figuring the best ways to maximize his time with the kids while not jeopardizing his job.
Rather than focusing on “winning” equal time with his children post-divorce, I encouraged Foster to think about ways to spend time with the children immediately, while the case is going on, both to get a realistic idea of how much time he could spend in his role as father, and also to demonstrate, both to Myrna and the kids, that he was serious about expanding his role. If that resulted in a 50/50 plan, great, but if not, he would know he was doing the most he could to be a good father to his children.
In the end, Foster and I put our heads together and came up with a plan that gave Myrna more of the kids’ time, but gave him three out of four weekends each month. Even though this was not a “50-50” plan, it allowed him to spend more of his free hours with the children, giving him a chance to be more involved than he had ever been during the marriage. That felt like a win to Foster.