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Best methods for equalizing physical custody

There are some custody cases that will only settle if both parties get equal time with the child(ren). Thus a sizable subset of custody cases settle with both parties getting at least 180 overnights a year. There are numerous ways one could theoretically create such a custody schedule but many of them are, frankly, stupid. One could literally alternate days between the parties, turning the child(ren) into human ping-pong balls. One could alternate time periods of multiple days–as I will note below alternating periods of seven days can work well but other durations will create instability in scheduling recurring activities for the children. One could even create a random number generator to pick out each parent’s 182 (or 183) overnights for the year–if one wishes to engender hatred in one’s children.

Experience teaches there are three good ways to equalize time.

Week on/week off

Alternating weeks of visitation is the simplest method of equally dividing physical custody. Assuming the parties rarely take vacations longer than one week, and assuming the parties are willing to have holidays fall on the week-on/week-off schedule, no adjustments to the schedule are necessary. It’s relatively easy to adjust the schedule to give each party a two or three consecutive week period in summer by giving them the right to select a week from the other. Since Spring Break, Thanksgiving Break, and Christmas Break are typically a weekend longer than one or two weeks, one can either alternate them or allow the week-on/week-off pattern to continue (with the understanding that one party may get a particular holiday for five or six consecutive years).

There are four decent options on when to start the weeks. First one needs to decide if weeks should begin or end with the weekend (that’s largely a matter of the parties’ preference) and whether the pickup should be at school or at the other party’s home (or some other location). Exchanges at the home or at another location can be problematic if the parties do not get along; exchanges at the school require the children to bring numerous personal items to school or the parties to coordinate exchanges of the children’s items outside of the actual visitation exchange.

Once those two decision are made, the exchange time looks like this:

Beginning of Weekend/Exchange at school: Friday after school

Beginning of Weekend/Exchange at home or other location: Friday afternoon (typically 6:00 p.m.)

End of Weekend/Exchange at school: One party delivers to school Monday; other party picks up after school Monday

End of Weekend/Exchange at home or other location: Sunday evening (typically 6:00 p.m.)

Five-days/two-days/two-days/five-days

This schedule is similar to week-on/week-off in that there is regularity in the children’s schedules. In this schedule, one parent gets every Monday and Tuesday night, the other parent gets every Wednesday and Thursday overnight, and the parties alternate three day weekends. This schedule creates a 5-day/2-day/2-day/5-day pattern. Again the parties can decide whether to exchange at school or exchange at home or another location. The parties can continue this schedule in the summer or go to a week-on/week/off schedule.

The advantage of this schedule over week-on/week-off is that children don’t go a week without seeing each parent during the school year. This schedule also works well when one parent wants every Thursday night to oversee the children’s preparation for Friday school testing.  The disadvantage is that it doubles the number of visitation exchanges. Both schedules provide sufficient regularity that any child who knows the days of the week should understand what the bi-weekly routine will look like.

With both week-on/week-off and 5/2/2/5, one can monitor a child’s academic progress to determine if one parent is insufficiently focused on the child’s academics. Under the week-on/week-off schedule if the child is having academic problem in alternating weeks, it’s somewhat straightforward to demonstrate this. In a 5/2/2/5 schedule, one looks at whether the child is doing poorly in school on Tuesdays and Wednesday or on Thursdays and Fridays.

One parent has the majority of the school year/the other parent has the supermajority of summer

This schedule is rarely used and there are few cases in which it makes sense to use. However it can be a method of equalizing time while allowing one parent to have greater control over academics.

The problem with this schedule is that a small deviation from 50/50 during the school year requires a huge deviation from 50/50 during the summer. The schedule cannot be equalized if one parent has four or fewer overnights every two weeks during the school year. A schedule that gives one parent five overnights every two weeks during the school year can only be equalized by giving that parent all but one or two weeks in summer. A schedule that gives one parent six overnights every two weeks during the school year requires a less imbalanced summer schedule but, at that point, the main benefits of deviating from an equal schedule during the school year are largely lost.

In theory, this schedule works well when one parent is more focused on the child’s academics and the other parent has greater work flexibility in summer. However the adults who have the greatest work flexibility in summer tend to be teachers, and they typically don’t want to relinquish control over the school year. That’s why this schedule is rarely used. However, in the right circumstance–one parent is more academically oriented; the other parent has greater work flexibility in summer–it’s an option to explore.

Turning a 50/50 physical custody agreement in principle into an actual 50/50 physical custody agreement requires consideration of the issues noted above. However these three methods of equally dividing physical custody are the best I’ve come up with in 25 years of practice.

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  • Gary Smith

    I would add one other possibility. I observed this schedule work with a close friend. He and his ex-wife split the year in half. Dad had the first half of the year and Mom had the second half of the year. They had alternate weekends when the children were with the other parent and alternated Spring Break, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. It worked very well for them and their children turned out ok.

    • I guess it would work but I don’t see anything to recommend it. Any idea why they wanted such an arrangement?

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