You and your spouse should be able to resolve the issues of custody and visitation privately or through mediation or collaborative programs. But if you can't reach an agreement on your own or through one of these resources, the only alternative is to have a judge make the decisions for you.
The judge is given one test to apply: What is in the best interest of the child? The best interests of the parents are irrelevant.
Take the case of a mother who has primary custody of a child and plans to remarry a man who lives 1,000 miles away. She wants to take the child and move to be with her new husband. The child's father protests that his weekend visits with the child would be impossible. If the move is allowed, the child will have to change schools, lose friends, and see the father only irregularly. Situations like this have become more frequent in recent years as our society becomes more mobile and employers transfer their employees around the world.
I have decided many cases with similar themes, some for the parent who moved, some for the stay-at-home parent. In one case in which I denied a move similar to the situation described above, the mother canceled the wedding to avoid losing substantial time with her child.
Be aware that when you take child issues to court, you are turning over complete control of major elements of their future to a judge who doesn't know you or your children. In most cases, the judge has had little or no training in child development or psychology.
And also bear in mind that any agreement that brings goodwill for people who will always be part of your family is miles ahead of something a judge imposes. As your child grows and changes, it will be much simpler to modify an agreement that the parents are able to reach on their own.
For example, you may want to take your children on a special extended vacation some day. It will be much easier to arrange if there is a history of agreements of this type between you and your ex. But without an agreement, the matter must be settled by a judge. And that will involve legal maneuvering, including preparing documents that will get you on the court calendar, gathering evidence supporting your request, and appearing at a hearing in court. Lawyer fees for such a matter will normally exceed $2,500.
One of the prime benefits of using methods other than court to resolve parenting issues is that they promote more realistic custody plans. There are some mediators who specialize in doing this as part of the divorce procedure.
Experts disagree over whether children should participate in the custody phases of divorce mediation. Of course, the maturity and temperament of a child will control the answer in many cases. Discuss this subject with your mediator, who may have some standard practice for dealing with it. Obviously, children should not be burdened with decisions that should be decided by their parents. But discussing various custody and visitation schedules with children who are sufficiently mature may help avoid problems that could sabotage a plan for reasons parents might not anticipate.
Even if the children don't participate in the actual mediation, some experts feel that it can be important to have a mature child present when the final mediated agreement is signed. It can provide a sense that, despite lingering hopes a child may have, the marriage is really over, but that Mom and Dad are still taking care of them.