By Alan Freed
Old habits die hard, and so do old statutory terms. In Missouri, we refer to the arrangements made around the care of children as “child custody,” and we divide child custody into two components: legal custody and physical custody. “Legal” custody defines how the parents will make major decisions for their children, and “physical” custody defines how the parents will share responsibility for caring for the children in their two homes.
“Custody” is one of those words that has stuck around the law, even though our ideas about caring for children have changed dramatically over time. Since “custody” literally means “ownership and control,” parents often get into major disagreements over “winning” and “losing” custody, which is why we sometimes end up with “custody battles,” rather than reasonable negotiations over how to best care for children.
So where does “residential parent” come into the discussion?
Under Missouri law, if the parents share physical custody, one parent’s address needs to be designated as “the address of the child for mailing and educational purposes.” Presumably, the legislature decided to include this language to build a tiebreaker into a parenting plan if the parents are unable to agree on where to send the kids to school.
Here’s where the problem arises. “The address of the child for mailing and educational purposes” is a mouthful, so lawyers and judges frequently use the handy shorthand, “residential parent” instead. Those two words, however, carry a strong emotional impact. A parent may be very happy with the parenting schedule, but may still bristle at the idea that the other parent has been given the title of “residential parent.”
My advice: Focus on the plan itself, and not on the language a lawyer or judge may use in describing it. Being the “residential parent” only comes into play if the parents disagree on a school choice, and this issue does not come up frequently. A parent whose address is used for education purposes has no additional or superior rights. For most families, this designation, regardless of how much they may have fought about it during their divorce, is pushed to the background as they move forward with their parenting plan and deal with the day-to-day issues of child-rearing that all families with children experience.