How does child custody work when unmarried parents separate?
When parents separate, whether married or not, the best interest of the children will always be the most important factor when deciding on custody and visitation. Not all splits are amicable, which can make it difficult to come to an agreement. If an agreement cannot be reached between both parents, it will become the courts responsibility to decide.
The state of Texas refers to child custody as “conservatorship,” and offers two types:
Sole managing conservatorship (SMC).
SMC means one parent has the legal right to make certain decisions on behalf of the children. Those rights include:
• Choosing the primary residence
• Making healthcare decisions
• Consenting to medical treatment
• Being their “in case of emergency” contact
• Attending school activities
• Receiving child support
• Making decisions about education
Joint managing conservatorship (JMC).
JMC means both parents share the right to make decisions on behalf of the children. In this case, a judge will assign specific responsibilities to each parent. JMC does not mean both parents share equal custody. That decision will be made in a separate visitation schedule known as a standard possession order (SPO).
How does visitation work and what is a standard possession order?
The state of Texas refers to visitation as a standard possession order (SPO). The SPO is a set schedule that determines each parent’s time with their children.
COURTS AND CHILD VISITATION SCHEDULES
A divorced parent might have custody of a child or visitation rights. Often, having visitation rights means being subject to a visitation schedule that was created by the parents or established in court.
A court may create a schedule when parents going through a divorce are in too much conflict to agree on one. If the parents live far apart and must travel to make visitation happen, a court-ordered schedule might also resolve the issue. Courts generally take the position that unless a parent endangers a child’s well-being, children benefit from spending time with both parents. A parent who violates a visitation agreement could face a court penalty or only be allowed supervised visitation with their children.
If parents share custody, courts can create a custody schedule. Parents may have input into both visitation and custody schedules, and older children might also express preferences that are reflected in the schedules. Courts may also address where children spend holidays since this is often a point of contention.
There are a number of different arrangements that can work well for parents and children if the parents have shared custody. For example, children may spend alternating weeks with each parent, or they might spend part of the week with one parent and part with the other. One parent may be required to pay child support to the other. This is income-based, so if a parent has a significant drop in income, that parent might be able to get the child support amount reduced. However, it is necessary to go to court and request a modification rather than simply ceasing payment. Until the modification is approved, the parent will continue to owe the same amount and may owe arrears on unpaid support.
Challenges During the Child Custody Exchanges
One of the issues that can be particularly difficult for divorced parents is the exchange that must take place for visitation purposes. If divorced parents cannot keep their emotions in check, arguments may take place during pick-ups and drop-offs.
Because children are present during the exchange, it is important for parents to try to keep calm. It is not uncommon for the behavior of a parent at child custody exchanges to be brought up in court, and harmful behavior could cost parents their custody rights.
A custody exchange may be used as an opportunity for divorced parents to discuss their child. However, discussions about school, parenting strategies, changes to the parenting schedule or vacation plans could become heated arguments. In some cases, parents will call law enforcement officers to the scene of child custody exchanges as a way to prevent the escalation of arguments. Law enforcement officers may document what happens at a child custody exchange, but they can only become involved if someone breaks the law.
A divorced parent may decide that child custody exchanges are not the best venue for parenting discussions due to the potential for the child to witness arguments. A parenting plan may also include a provision that requires visitation/exchanges to take place in a neutral location such as a public park.