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What's in a Name? - The Problem with Labeling Parents "Custodial Parent" vs. "Visiting Parent"

It's difficult for people who haven't been involved in a divorce case to understand why divorcing spouses can be so mean to each other, especially when children are involved. But the emotions that couples experience when going through a divorce can be like riding a roller coaster. Many experts describe the emotional process of dealing with a divorce as similar to that of dealing with the death of a loved one, including all the same stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When divorces involve children, these emotions are amplified by parent's fears that they will "lose" their children.

This is why the labels of "custodial parent" and "visiting parent" carry so much baggage with them, and can make people fight when they don't need to. When it comes to figuring out the best way that both parents can remain involved in the lives of their children, we believe it is more important for clients to focus on what the actual plan is, rather than the labels. We recently wrote a post about Parenting Plans, that focused on how parents can come up with a Parenting Plan as part of their divorce case.

But it is also important to know what significance the labels have. As the court moves away from the "custody vs. visitation" model towards a "parenting plan" model much of the old significance to these labels has been drained from them. For example, the Child Support Guidelines use to simply specify that the custodial parent pays the non-custodial parent the figure calculated by applying the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet. However, the new Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines clarify as follows:

"These guidelines recognize that children should enjoy parenting time with both parents to the greatest extent possible consistent with the children’s best interests.

These guidelines are based upon the child(ren) having a primary residence with one parent and spending approximately one­third of the time with the other parent.

Where two parents share equally, or approximately equally, the financial responsibility and parenting time for the child(ren), the child support shall be determined by calculating the child support guidelines twice, first with one parent as­ the Recipient, and second with the other parent as the Recipient. The difference in the calculations shall be paid to the parent with the lower weekly support amount..."

This clarification obviates the need for using the label of custodial parent, because the amount of time the child spends with each parent in the parenting plan will define how we apply the guidelines.

Likewise, the title of "sole custody" vs. "joint custody" used to have definite legal significance regarding what standard would be applied when a parent wanted to remove the child from the Commonwealth and move to another state. The differences in the applicable standards was the weight that should be given to the benefit of the relocation to the parent seeking to move. In the case of "sole custody" the benefit to the relocating parent is given so much weight that it is a difficult burden to overcome, and in many cases relocation is allowed. In the case of "joint custody" the benefit to the relocating parent is not given as much weight, and the disruption to the non-moving parent's parenting time will often outweigh the benefits of the move, and so in many cases relocation is not allowed.

But recent court decisions have cut back on the significance of the labels in these cases as well, focusing more on the actual parenting time spent with the children by each parent to determine whether the children were truly living equally with both parents or not. In Altomare v. Altomare 77 Mass. App. Ct. 601 (2010) the Court held that the parenting time arrangement, which involved significantly more time with the Mother, was more important than the label of shared physical custody. The Court in Altomare looked past the "shared physical custody" label and indicated they would treat the case as a "sole physical custody" case for purpose of applying a removal standard, because that was what the parenting time actually reflected. See also Katzman v. Healy, Appeals Court of Massachusetts.No. 09-P-2341. (2010) in which the Appeals Court overturned a trial judge who, according to the appeals court, mixed the standards together in the case where the Mother's label was "sole physical" custodian, but also where Mother had significantly more parenting time with the children.

Because the history of these cases is important, we do not mean to imply or express the opinion that the labels have lost all legal meaning. However, it is clear that the Court is leaning away from these labels and towards an analysis of how the actual parenting time impacts the social, emotional and financial effects on children and their parents. If you are mired in a fight over labels, you should consider re-focusing your attention on the best Parenting Plan for your family and let the realities of that plan inform these other issues, rather than letting the cart lead the horse.

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