Child custody is often ‘no man’s land’

| November 20, 2017 | 0 Comments
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1st Lt. Andrew J. Harman
Legal Assistance Office

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — When a married couple separates and the parties move to separate residences, there are many issues that require prompt attention.

What do we do about money? Do we need new cellphone and car insurance plans? Should we close joint bank accounts and credit cards?

For married people with children, however, none of these issues are more important and urgent as figuring out an interim custody arrangement.

When the parties first separate, they’re in a situation I like to call “child custody no man’s land.” Both parents have equal custodial rights at this point. There’s nothing legally preventing Mom from moving to another state and taking the kids, just like there’s nothing preventing Dad from doing the same thing.

Essentially, the parents are only bound by their own sense of fairness, goodwill towards each other and fear of future repercussions if the matter ends up in court.

With that said, resorting to that kind of self-help can and often does have disastrous consequences. A separated parent who picks up the kids from school or day care without getting the approval of the other parent (or even informing the other parent) can prompt the other parent to call the police in a panic – and can certainly cause a judge to question that person’s judgment.

Separated parents should conduct themselves as if their every word and action might ultimately end up being scrutinized by a judge – because they likely will. Separated parents should be guided by the best interests of the children.

Here are some guidelines and practical tips for navigating child custody no man’s land:

1) Attempt to reach some kind of agreement, even if it’s just verbal. A situation where the parents continually “steal” the kids from each other without any kind of structure is unsustainable – not to mention bad for the kids.

2) Ensure recurring contact with both parents. Fifty-fifty custodial arrangements sound good in theory, but are rarely manageable unless the parties have an excellent working relationship and live extremely close to one another. Still, the best custody arrangements are usually the ones where the child has frequent recurring contact with each parent.

3) Be flexible. Life has a way of messing up even the best laid-out custody plans. If a parent is unavailable to care for the kids on his or her “normal” custodial weekend, the parents should work together to work out a temporary alternative to the normal schedule. Courts look unfavorably upon a parent who refuses contact between the kids and the other parent.

4) Communicate. Don’t make a habit of passing messages to the other parent through the kids. Facilitate phone conversations between the child and the non-custodial parent, and keep the other parent informed about medical appointments, school functions and other major issues. Never berate the other parent in front of the kids. Instead, promote and foster the relationship between the kids and the other parent.

5) Most importantly, think of your kids before yourself. Chances are, a child will have some sense of attachment to his/her bedroom, the house and the neighborhood, and may want to stay in the house he/she was living in before the parents separated. That doesn’t mean the “child always goes with the house,” but it is certainly a consideration.

Also, what are the child’s needs? Is one parent better equipped (i.e., has a more flexible work schedule) to tend to the child’s everyday needs – like getting the child to and from school and activities, supervising homework, cooking meals, etc.? If so, it usually makes sense for the child to stay primarily with that person until the parties can come to a formal agreement or the court can resolve the issues.

If you are an active duty service member and the other parent is not, be reasonable and think about your case from a judge’s point of view. You have certain limitations that a regular civilian parent does not, such as long and unpredictable working hours, lack of scheduling flexibility, temporary duties away from home, deployments, etc. Keep those in mind and be realistic about your custody expectations and when trying to agree on a visitation schedule.

Also, if you reside on an Army installation in Hawaii, be aware of child supervision policies prescribed by USAG-HI-12. For example, paragraph 5 of that policy states that “Children less than 10 years old cannot be left unsupervised at bus stops, public facilities, residences, in vehicles or recreational areas, and cannot walk to school alone.”

If the parties are unable to successfully navigate “child custody no man’s land,” then either parent may file a petition for custody in the Family Court, with or without an accompanying divorce action. An attorney can tell you more about what to expect if things get to that point.

A word of caution, even though the courts are fairly diligent about processing and scheduling these matters quickly, you should never count on immediate relief from the court. That’s why it’s best if the two parties can put aside their personal differences and play by a couple simple rules.

(Editor’s note: Harman is a legal assistance attorney.)

 

Appointments

If you have any questions about child custody, visit the Schofield Barracks Legal Assistance Office, 278 Aleshire Ave. The office appointment line is (808) 655-8607.

No appointments are required during walk-in hours on Tuesdays from 9:30-11:30 a.m. and 1-3:30 p.m., or Thursdays from 1-3:30 p.m.

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