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A parent’s guide to divorce with children

How to navigate this delicate process when tiny humans are involved.

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Navigating the divorce process when little people are involved requires a bit more legwork than getting unhitched without kids. You’ll need to settle issues like custody and visitation arrangements before you can go your separate ways. And patience and civility will go a long way in keeping your children’s anxiety at bay and making the process as pain-free as possible for you.

5 things to include in your child custody agreement

Divorcing parents need a written document called a child custody agreement, which generally includes the following key elements:

Physical custody arrangements

Physical custody dictates which parent the child will primarily live with. You can choose from three arrangements:

  • Sole physical custody. Your child principally lives with one parent. The other parent is usually awarded visitation.
  • Joint physical custody. Your child lives with both parents and evenly splits time between the two homes.
  • Bird’s nest custody. Your child stays in one location, but the parents rotate in and out on a designated schedule.

Legal custody arrangements

Legal custody outlines which parent is responsible for the child’s major life decisions and how they’re raised, including decisions regarding education, religious upbringing and medical care. Parents who choose joint legal custody can share this right.

Visitation rights

When one parent has custodial rights, the noncustodial parent generally has visitation rights. Visitation rights ensure that the noncustodial parent gets to spend time with the child according to a designated schedule.

Most states also grant visitation rights to grandparents.

Shared custody schedule

If you choose joint physical custody, you’ll need a shared custody schedule to outline which parent has the child on any given day. You don’t need to split the time 50/50. Instead, many families choose a plan that minimizes disruptions to the child’s routine.

You can find samples of joint custody schedules by doing a quick Google search. For example, you can choose to alternate weeks. There are also more complicated schedules, including a 2-2-3 rotation (two days with you, two days with your spouse, a three-day weekend with you, and then so on), a 3-3-4-4 rotation and a 2-2-5-5 rotation.

Child support payments

Even after a divorce, both parents bear the financial responsibility to support the child. The noncustodial parent generally makes child support payments to the parent who has sole custody.

Each state calculates child support differently. The amount is usually based on one of the following models:

  • Income shares. Most states use this method, which takes both parents’ income to determine how much the child would’ve received if the parents lived together. Then, it calculates how much you’re responsible for, based on your income.
  • Percentage of income. Takes a percentage of the noncustodial parent’s income.
  • Melson formula. Based on the income shares model, but takes into account the parent’s basic needs, too.

Who is responsible for drafting the child custody agreement?

You can write the custody agreement on your own, in collaboration with your spouse, use an online service or hire a legal professional to draft it. Most importantly, the court must approve it to be legally binding.

Contested vs. uncontested divorce with kids

An uncontested divorce means that you and your spouse agree on the big issues of your divorce, including child custody, child support and visitation. In other words, both parents have signed off on who has custody, a fair visitation schedule and the amount of child support the noncustodial parent will pay every month.

A contested divorce with children is significantly more complicated. It essentially means you and your spouse aren’t on the same page regarding the child custody agreement. In other words, one parent objects to some or all of the agreement.

Can I get an uncontested divorce with kids online?

Yes, if you and your spouse agree to the divorce terms, including child custody, you can get a divorce online. But you’ll also need to meet your state’s other requirements, such as establishing residency, before filing.

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How can I avoid going to court in a contested divorce?

If you have a contested case, it’s still possible to avoid going to court. You and your spouse can choose to go through mediation or arbitration to settle your disputes outside of court.

Unfortunately, if you can’t resolve your disputes through those outlets, you’ll need to fight it out in court.

When are child custody evaluations performed?

When a contested case ends up in court, the judge may order a child custody evaluation before ruling on your case.

The evaluator will schedule interviews to speak to both parents and the child. They’ll also schedule a time to observe how you and your child interact by arranging a visit at your home or in their office.

Throughout the evaluation process, the evaluator may also interview witnesses, including teachers, doctors and other family members.

Ask an expert: Advice on navigating divorce with children

We asked four experts in the fields of law and child psychology to share their advice for ways to make the divorce process a bit more bearable for your kids. Here are their best tips.

Andrea Vacca
  • Andrea Vacca
  • Mediator and collaborative lawyer
  • Vacca Family Law Group
Nanci Smith
  • Nanci Smith
  • Family law attorney
  • Nanci A. Smith, Esq.
Dr. Fran Walfish
  • Dr. Fran Walfish
  • Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist
  • Author of The Self-Aware Parent
Karrie Brazaski
  • Karrie Brazaski
  • Burnout recovery expert and youth empowerment specialist
  • Founder of Redwood Executive Coaching & Redwood Youth

4 resources for parents going through divorce with kids

For extra help and guidance on how to handle the divorce process when children are involved, take a look at the following resources:

Bottom line

Parents that can agree on child custody and support can generally speed up the divorce process. And that same civil approach can do wonders in helping your children adapt to this new normal.

Ready to get started? Check out our complete guide to initiating your divorce proceedings.

Frequently asked questions about divorce with kids

Here are a few more answers to your most burning questions about divorce with children.

My children live in another state. How does this affect my divorce?

Decisions about child custody generally follow the state law where the children live, which may affect where you file for divorce.

What is a co-parenting class?

Some states require parents to attend these classes as part of the divorce process. The classes try to help parents learn to cooperate with one another for the children’s wellbeing and to maintain stability even though the parents live apart.

How long do I have to pay child support payments?

Child support orders generally stay in effect until the child reaches adulthood. In some situations, support may continue if your child has special needs or attends college. And since payments don’t stop automatically, you’ll need to make an affirmative request to the court to stop your child support obligations.

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