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Posts filed under Parenting

When parents are unmarried, do courts favor mothers?

March 2010

Many single fathers think that they have an automatic right to spend as much time with their child as the mother does. As a rule, Ohio courts disagree.

That makes many unmarried fathers think the courts are biased in favor of mothers. Not so. When children begin life without two parents in the home, courts are biased in favor of primary caregivers— and the fact is, that’s usually the mother.

Why the caregiver bias? Courts have a duty to serve ‘the best interests of the child’– and one of the most important is stability.

Stability starts early, when an infant quickly bonds with and becomes attached to their primary caregiver. That’s the person who takes care of their needs, who understands their habits and preferences and fears. That’s the person they know they can count on.

That stability goes out the window when a child is suddenly uprooted to spend half their time with someone they have no relationship with— a father, for instance.

Does this leave unmarried dads out in the cold? No. But it strongly suggests that single fathers should establish their legal standing and begin to participate as committed parents very early in their child’s life. Here are the basics on how to get parental rights.

Single dads who wait many months or years to activate their parental rights have to be ready to go step by step.

A court is simply not going to order equal parenting time to any parent who has not established a caregiver relationship with a child. But it will start with an initial plan of visits, integrating the parent into his child’s life for a few hours at a time, usually three days a week. Frequency and regularity of contact are crucial.

As the parent-child relationship gets established, courts often expand contact to include overnights. The most important factor is the father’s ability to show that he understands and can take care of his child’s everyday needs on a regular basis.

The bottom line is this: Dont’ talk about it. Do it. Unmarried fathers can earn equal parental rights and responsibilities by doing what it takes for their children to recognize them as genuine caregivers. A court will usually follow suit and activate fathers’ full parenting rights.

What are the rights of unmarried parents?

March 2010

In Ohio, the unmarried parents of a child do not automatically have equal rights. By statute, an unmarried mother is the ‘natural legal custodian’ of her child, with the right to make all the decisions. The father has no active parental rights at all.

Can unmarried fathers get parental rights? Absolutely. In order to activate their rights, single fathers can seek an order from an appropriate court. That means filing a complaint that asks the court to

1)      determine paternity

2)      allocate parental rights (shared parenting or visitation)

3)      set a proper level of child support.

Once the case is in court, both unmarried parents are taken to have parental rights and parental responsibilities: participation in parenting activities plus financial support. The only question is how the rights and responsibilities get allocated.

One rule of thumb for a single dad who wants to activate his right to be a father: do it as soon as possible. Go to court right away. Begin defining and fulfilling your financial responsibilities as early in your child’s life as you can. Do the same with your parenting time and rights.  

The longer an unmarried father waits to pursue his legal rights and responsibilities, the more likely a court is to allocate rights in favor of the primary caregiver– the mother. And that’s not because of her gender. It’s because she is already a constant, consistent presence in the child’s life.

Unmarried fathers who have not been involved with their kids generally don’t get equal time with them right off the bat. So get involved, stay involved, and seek an appropriate court order as soon as possible. That’s how you establish single fathers’ rights.

Does divorce automatically damage kids?

February 2010

Yesterday, I commented on psychologist Ruth Bettelheim’s take on child custody and support child custody and support reform and how Ohio measures up. What I didn’t emphasize was her challenge to the notion that divorce per se damages kids.

The idea that ending a marriage is automatically ‘destroying the family’ is a familiar one. But the fact is that many families endure quite well despite divorce. Mom remains Mom and Dad remains Dad, even if they are no longer married and do not live in the same residence.

Bettelheim –and others such as E. M. Hetherington— argue that most adult children from divorced parents ‘are no worse off than their peers whose parents remained married.’ In fact, Bettelheim proposes that children of divorce are often more ‘resilient, self-reliant, adaptable and independent’ adults.

But there’s a big qualifier here: high-conflict divorce, and the stress generated from it, does wreak lasting damage on children. That’s why it’s called toxic stress.

The point is inescapable: do not let the idea that one parent or the other is destroying the family become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If one or both parents allow themselves to slip into recrimination and escalating levels of conflict, the family –and kids’ lives– can very well be destroyed.

Divorce assures neither family destruction nor family bliss. Like marriage, divorce is what you make it. So the key to coming out on the positive side for kids is to continue to function as a family, that is,

–keep the relationship between parents cordial and well intentioned

–approach parenting in a unified, cooperative manner

–keep the children insulated from involvement in any conflict between parents.

You don’t have to be married or living together in one household to do that.

Parenting plans: for everyone

January 2010

Many people think parenting plans only make sense for shared parenting, where both parents retain custodial rights to children– not just one parent who is designated residential parent and legal custodian. In those cases, the Ohio Revised Code requires a written shared parenting plan to spell out all the details of how parents will work together to raise their children.

But what about when only one parent has custodial rights? Technically, that means the other parent has only residual parental rights that come into play if something happens to the custodial parent. Typically, the non-custodial parent simply gets a schedule of parenting time (visitation). In theory, the custodial parent makes all the decisions.

So why bother with a parenting plan?

Because real life is not very neat. A child may have health issues or special needs that require both parents to agree on how they will conduct certain aspects of childrearing. A non-custodial parent may feel that his or her legitimate interests in children’s wellbeing are simply ignored, that they’ve lost the right to have an opinion. That can lead to arguments, strife and court. Not to mention the decidedly negative impact on children.

The fact is, a parenting plan anticipates and solves many problems no matter what the custodial arrangement. Here are four positive things a parenting plan will do:

SPELL IT OUT. Does a child have a special diet that both parents need to follow? Do both parents need to get specialized knowledge or training to deal with a health or developmental matter? A parenting agreement spells out important things each parent must do for their child’s wellbeing. Does it actually make sense for both parents to participate in crucial medical decisions and emergency situations? Think about it and set  it out in the plan.

ANTICIPATE ISSUES. Here’s an example—Custodial parent: ‘I won’t allow him to spend too much time with my ex’s family during visitation.’ Other parent: ‘You can’t tell me what to do when he’s with me.’ A parenting agreement brings this issue out from the start and lets parents air their viewpoints, consider what their child wants, agree on something fair, and put it in writing.

BE CLEAR. In the example above, exactly what is ‘too much time?’ An hour? A day? Or how about—‘He calls our daughter too often when she’s home with me.’ What’s too often? Three times a day? Twice a week? Or—‘She showed up at her teacher conference. That’s what I do.’ Again, the process of making the agreement puts a finger on possible grey areas, so the parties can clarify them and reach agreement.

AVOID COURT. That’s not a 100 percent guarantee. But spelling things out, facing the issues and clarifying the fuzzy areas at the outset goes a long way to reducing the likelihood of having to resort to the expense and stress of court. Many parenting agreements, by the way, specify how parties will resolve disputes—through mediation, for instance, another way to avoid costly court battles.

A parenting plan doesn’t have to spell out every last thing in detail. But the process of creating the plan makes you think about what you assume and why (and the same for your ex). It helps you sort out what’s important and what’s not, what level of participation really is fair for both parties. And it keeps the focus on the best way to get to what’s good for your children when you do disagree. That’s especially important for pre-school kids, as developmental psychologist Jean Mercer writes.

Parenting agreements prepare you both to make a challenging transition a little smoother for you and the kids you love.

Steps to a workable parenting plan

November 2009

If you have children, the first issue you should consider is how to create a parenting plan that will, to the greatest extent possible, convince your children that their family is intact, even if their parents’ marriage is not.

  1. Don’t wait for the court to decide for you. No court will ever have the time and opportunity to know your children as you and your spouse do. It’s not really in children’s best interest to let a court decide how you are going to parent. It is simply the only alternative when divorcing parents cannot get on the same page. So, many couples sit down together and agree on a parenting plan. A written parenting agreement is helpful even if there is no court order for shared parenting. Find out why. Without an agreement between parents, courts simply follow their own standard parenting time orders. As you might guess, this raises unanticipated and unanswered questions about parenting rights and responsibilities. Clarifying them often involves added expenses and distress for parents and children.
  2. Put the issues on the table. Start by listing all the disagreements you’ve had about everything from homework and friends to bedtime and discipline. You know what the big ones are. They’re fundamental things you don’t want to fight about again and again when you’re divorced. Sure, you might continue to argue about them privately if you stayed married. The problem is, after divorce you usually end up having to work them out publicly, and expensively, in court.
  3. Get an assist. No one says it’s easy. Parenting is an ongoing challenge and divorce usually complicates it. Many parents find it helpful to sit down together with someone experienced in creating parenting plans. Professional counselors have experience and knowledge of what works for people in many situations, some of them similar to yours. They can offer new perspectives on potential problems and help you find ways of getting to solutions interactively.

What is shared parenting?

November 2009

In court, shared parenting refers to a legal relationship between divorced parents. Neither parent is designated as the sole residential parent and legal custodian. In other words, both parents retain custodial rights to children.

What are custodial rights? They are those rights created by the parent-child relationship, including such things as the right to make decisions regarding children’s upbringing and the right to interaction and possession. In everyday terms, custodial rights are rights to participate in important aspects of your child’s life, such as time spent together and decisions about schooling, religious participation, extracurricular activities, and so on.

Shared parenting means that you and your former spouse retain the ability to work out exactly how you will share parental rights and the responsibilities that go with them. A lot of people think shared parenting is a fifty-fifty proposition. But it’s not mathematical—it’s sensible. It doesn’t come down to parceling out hours and minutes in detail but to each parent taking on the responsibilities that make sense for each child’s life.
It does not have to be 50-50 in terms of time or number of responsibilities. It should simply make sense for your child.

The court expects to approve a very detailed, written shared parenting plan. The plan specifies what you will do jointly, as well as what each parent will do separately and how.

Do you have to have a written shared parenting plan? Yes; Ohio courts require it. Think of it as insurance. When parents agree and nothing changes over the years, it’s hardly necessary. But where there is strife, a plan helps parents consider the issues and provide workable solutions in a written document. That document becomes part of the court’s final order ending the marriage.

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