Picking a Custody Arrangement That Works

May 28, 2024 | Child Custody, Legal Perspective

Icon for author Elisabeth W. Molnar Elisabeth W. Molnar

When you’re separating or divorcing from your spouse, it’s hard to grasp you are still a family and custody has to work for the entire, new version of that family unit. I can speak to this struggle professionally — and personally. My name is Elisabeth Valarik, but you may also know me by my professional name, Elisabeth Molnar. I have been a family law attorney for over 20 years and am currently a partner at Pollock Begg, western Pennsylvania’s largest family law firm.

Before and after my own divorce, and after my beloved new husband took on me and my kiddos, I tackled very complex custody cases; strategizing, advising and advocating for my client’s best interests for their new family structure.

Matters of the Heart Get Messy

I have kids so I get the heartstrings pull harder during divorce proceedings for those precious munchkins than for the money, the car, the house. And this is where it can get downright messy. For those of you who recognize my name, you may even know my two boys, and I am sure you’ve seen our family is not perfect either. My ex-husband and I do not have a handbook for sharing our kids, or sharing our friends, family and former family members. My career past gave us some guidance, and to my ex-husband’s credit, he trusted me to navigate us through. In many ways, I had to trust him too. And, now we both trust my current husband. However, what do you do if you are in an unfortunate situation where you don’t have that mutual trust factor?

You might not have a plan right away, but chances are, at least one of you has been to see a lawyer first, and at some point in the separation talk, someone blurts out, “Well, it has to be 50/50.”  Does anyone really know what this means for kids (or even the parents) when they say it? What if you work so much that you can’t handle 50/50? What if you have coaching responsibilities in the evening or your hours are nontypical work hours? If your child is going to be shuffled to sitters or even the other spouse anyway due to other responsibilities, then why fight for the 50/50?

There is a stigma involved with anything less than 50/50 or 60/40 custody, but, in reality, kids are ok with less from one parent. They just want to know they are going to be okay, and their parents still communicate. Some of the best parents I have known have been the ones who work 60-hour workweeks but find a way to show their kids love, stability and how to prepare for the future.

So, what does that mean for your potential separation? Your children are the roadmap. Think about what your kids do and who does what in the relationship for those kids and create a custody agreement that reflects those needs.

Here are some examples of what to consider:

  • If one parent is the scholastic parent, talk about a schedule that allows the children to have a home base for the school year and be flexible over the summer or breaks.
  • If one parent loves to participate with the child in band or sports, let that parent have first crack at the band trips or the baseball tournaments. Maybe let the other child or children hang with mom or dad at home. Attach a one-year sample calendar to your custody order so that if disputes later arise, a court or mediator can see what you meant to do.
  • Be creative with the child support. If you are both affluent, this is easy. Pick things that each of you fund for the children, rather than having money exchange hands. If, however, one of you has a far greater ability to earn than the other, consider building those ingredients into a child support order. A good lawyer can work with the other lawyer to build an agreement of this type.

These roles do not have to fit traditional male and female roles, either. Just realistically consider who does what.

If there is no way of dealing with your estranged spouse amicably, the court is better than it used to be about setting a custody order as what we call “interim,” which means temporary. It is not the end of the world if you have to file a custody complaint, but be cautious. Filing anything is a lawsuit. Filing means something. Every case is different and sometimes it is necessary to file a complaint for the protection of children or a spouse. But make sure, before a complaint is filed, that there is a plan and a back-up plan for what happens next. There is a mandatory mediation session in Allegheny County, for example, and if your attorney is not offering you a plan for this session, ask questions. You could be asked to sign something that affects your future and the future of your kids. As attorneys in family law, it is our responsibility to have a plan, and a back-up plan, and maybe another back-up plan after that.

If you find yourself in a position where you do not know what to say to your spouse about custody when you are still living in the same home (in between those strategy sessions with your attorney), ask him or her to not have those discussions until you are ready. I have had clients text promises to the opposing party that have been used against them; and therefore, they are not always decisions that are best for the children. And, they make these choices before they realize significant problems. These issues may include DUIs, domestic violence, emotional abuse and/or mental illness.

You may not be able to be a “family in a new form” right away with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse. The important goal is to have your children understand that just because the family is no longer intact as it was, there will be enough love and attention to go around. If one party has a problem, try to address it with your lawyer or other professional and always attempt to keep the matter discreet, especially when the children are small.

Finally, trust your lawyer. We do this work because we are committed to assisting an overly crowded family court to operate more effectively and efficiently. We want to help families move forward in whatever new form looks right for their particular situation. If something in the potential custody agreement does not work for you or your kids, say so. A good lawyer will have options for you. Think about where you would like to be five years after your divorce and apply that to your plan for you and your kids. A happy parent can help children be happy and well-adjusted too.

About the Author

Pollock Begg Partner Elisabeth W. Molnar enjoys the challenge of complex custody cases. She complements her background and skill in civil litigation with certification in collaborative law, providing clients with representation options to meet their unique needs and circumstances.

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