There is no one right answer as far as child visitation arrangements are concerned. What is right for your child and your family may not be right for another family. On top of that, if you and your spouse can agree on a visitation arrangement for your child (or children), the options are unlimited and you can be as creative as you want. In most cases, if the parties can agree on child custody and/or visitation arrangement and that agreement is in writing, a judge will likely incorporate that agreement into an order of the court. Of course, if you can’t agree, the visitation arrangement, just like child custody, will be decided by a judge in court. Be sure to read the “Child Custody” link on the left-hand side of this website to read Virginia Code section 20-124.3 on the factors a court will look to in deciding what visitation arrangement (and custodial arrangement) is in the best interests of the child. That is always the guiding principle in every Virginia custody and child visitation case…the best interests of the child.
Child Visitation is really the term used for the parenting time of the non-custodial parent. In other words, let’s say that a mother is the primary physical custodian of the child. In this example, the child lives with the mom and then spends time with the father. That time spent with the father would constitute one aspect of the child visitation arrangement. Similarly, how the summer break is spent is another aspect of the child visitation arrangement. How the holidays are spent (or alternated) among the parents is yet another aspect of the child visitation arrangement.
With military families, flexibility in an amicable child custody situation is always preferred. If the parties can get along and truly maximize the quality time the child or children can spend with both parents, this is often in the best interests of that child or children in the long run. Deployments can come up quickly and the separation from the military parent can be particularly difficult on a child even in the best of circumstances. If you couple deployments with a divorce case, it can be particularly traumatic on a child.
One additional wrinkle in a custody/visitation case is what to do if the military parent receives change of station orders out of state or even out of the country. If this is expected, it should definitely be discussed with an attorney when strategizing at the outset of a contested custody/visitation case. There is special language that can be included in a Separation Agreement that anticipates a relocation and how that relocation should or should not affect the custodial arrangement. This is a major issue that should be discussed with an attorney.
As mentioned, there is no “one size fits all” or one correct answer in determining what visitation arrangement is best. Some ideas in routine cases where there is joint legal custody and primary physical custody to one parent can include (by agreement or otherwise):
• Every other weekend to the non-custodial parent and one night during the week. The agreement can even stipulate who will pick up the child, a location, and when and where the child will be returned to the primary custodian; or
• Every other weekend with one evening during the week from after school until 7:30 pm, when the child is then returned to the primary custodial parent.
• Alternate legal holidays during the year between the hours of 9:00 AM and 7:30 PM. Alternate legal holidays can be defined as: Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and the children’s birthdays.
• It can be agreed that the Husband will spend time with the children on his birthday and Father’s Day, it being expressly understood that the children shall spend time with the Wife on her birthday and Mother’s Day.
• Spring vacations can be alternated every other year (from after school on the last day of school before the break until 3:00 PM the day prior to when school reconvenes), or they can be split with one parent having the first half and the other parent having the second half of the Spring Break. The parties could even agree to alternate who has the first half in odd years and who has the first half in even years.
• Two weeks uninterrupted in the Summer to each parent where the normal custodial arrangement is temporarily suspended so that each parent can take a trip or spend time with the children. There is really no limit to how a Summer vacation can be divided.
• One of the thorniest issues is dealing with the Winter Break and Christmas holiday. Some folks agree to split the break and then alternate who has the first half of the break and who then has the first half the next year. We have constructed Separation Agreements that provide parenting time from the date school lets out for the Winter holiday until 12:30 pm on Christmas Day to the Mother in odd years, with the father then having 12:30 pm on Christmas Day until the day before school resumes. The parties can then switch in the even years with the Father having the first half of the Winter break. This also provides each parent a Christmas morning with the child or children every other year, and both parents are guaranteed time on Christmas Day.
Again, these are just some garden-variety ideas for visitation arrangements that are agreed to in a Separation Agreement. If the parties can agree otherwise, there is no limit to the creative arrangement that can be decided upon. We have seen some rather interesting arrangements that may appear odd to some, but to that family, it was completely normal and fit into their routine. We have seen couples alternate every week with the children during the year (one week with one parent and the next week with the other parent). If one parent lives out of the area, it might make sense to alternate the entire Christmas period (in odd years Mother has the entire holiday and in even years, the Father would have the entire holiday). It is important to remember that what is best for your family and children may not be right for another.
One other important caveat: the more 24-hour periods the non-custodial parent has with the child (or children) over 90-days in a calendar year can affect the amount of child support payable to the primary custodian. As with everything else involving custody and visitation, this should be discussed with an attorney beforehand so that you do not agree to an arrangement without understanding its full ramifications to your case (financially, emotionally and legally).
Finally, in our Separation Agreements, we like to include language that requires both parties to be respectful of the time spent with the children. We have specific language that details how long a parent must wait before leaving a drop-off location if the other parent fails to show up, what is required as far as notification to the other parent is concerned in the event of serious illness or injury to the child (or children) while under the other parent’s care, and even notifications and timelines about scheduling parenting time in the summer so that each parent can make plans accordingly. We also discuss with our clients when and how late it is appropriate for the other parent to telephonically communicate with the child, as well as what is appropriate by way of notification and communication to and from the child or children’s teachers.
In an ideal and amicable situation, it is always advantageous for the parties to work together to see if they can agree on what arrangement truly is in the best interests of the child or children. It is important that the details are then reduced into a well-written agreement or order of the court, if possible. If this important issue cannot be agreed upon, then litigation may be the last resort. However, even in a litigation situation, there may be several points that can be agreed upon by both parties with the help of negotiations through the attorneys. For example, if a child always goes to one of the grandparents’ home every summer for a week or two, and the child always looks forward to that time, it might be something that the parties can agree upon continuing, even if they cannot agree on who should be the primary custodian. Similarly, if the father always takes a child to (or coaches) a particular sport or activity, it might make sense that he continue to do so. If a mother is particularly involved in an activity such as Girl Scouts or coaching a particular sport as well, then it similarly might make sense that she continue to do so.
In our experience, if there are ways to lessen the impact or disruption on a child, then this is certainly preferred. Finally, we have drafted some very interesting custodial arrangements and visitation plans. It doesn’t mean one is any better than another. It simply means that a mom and dad are usually in the best position to know what is best for the sake of the children, and if they can put aside the emotion of the case and come to an agreement, there is often no limit on what sort of an arrangement can be constructed. However, this issue is one of the most charged in any divorce case. Sometimes the situation cannot be resolved amicably. If that is the case, it is especially important to discuss this issue early and often with an attorney and then strategize on how best to set the case up for success at trial.