In both Maryland and the District of Columbia the law generally requires that parents of minor children live separate and apart for six to twelve months, presumably to allow time for reconciliation or to confirm that the decision to divorce is irrevocable. However, for many families the financial and emotional costs of living separately are difficult to bear.
Often the parent leaving the household rents a temporary apartment that may not comfortably accommodate overnight visitation with the children. Yet facing the emotional loss of divorce, the absent parent may desire to engage more intensively with their children than previously, and may propose that the children spend equal time in each parent’s household. Since the children’s school and neighborhood friends are familiar anchors of social and emotional support, equal division of childrens’ time with each parent can be disruptive and add to the children’s stress during a time when the children’s adaptation to the reality of divorcing parents is raw. Yet relegating the absent parent to alternating weekends deprives him or her of the regular involvement in the children’s lives that will provide reassurance that the parental bond will continue beyond the parents’ divorce.
Whenever possible, I urge divorcing parents to discuss (either alone or in mediation or collaborative divorce proceedings) creative and flexible co-parenting arrangements that prioritize the children’s emotional and practical needs over their own emotional needs and convenience. However, this is not always feasible, particularly when one parent is resisting the divorce initiated by the other, or conversations are strained or impossible due to heated emotions aroused by to adultery, abuse or other misconduct.
At the initial court hearing the judge will enter a temporary custody order that will establish parenting time rules that may disfavor one or the other parent’s relationship with the children. Such preliminary orders frequently determine the ultimate custody order and parenting schedule, so the parties should be mindful of the parenting schedule they want for their children’s benefit. When parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, the court often will leave the children in the former marital household and offer the other parent limited visitation.
A well-drafted motion with a parenting plan presented at the initial court hearing can be effective to obtain an order establishing the ‘new normal’ duration the separation. Where parental discussions about parenting schedules reach impasse, either parent may ask the court to adopt a preliminary order. This order will establish a stable arrangement for occupancy of the marital home, shared residential arrangements that promote the children’s best interest, and adequate child support. The parent seeking such an interim order must persuade the judge by sworn statements and testimony that the parenting plan and child support that the lawyer advocates is fair and feasible for both parents and will genuinely promote the children’s best interest.
It is therefore important that the parent collaborate with an experienced family lawyer in preparing such a motion. A lawyer familiar with the law and judges’ attitudes can draft a more persuasive motion and supporting affidavits, and gather necessary documentary evidence, than a layperson in the emotional turmoil of divorce. The advice of an experienced lawyer about interim strategies, written separation agreements and parenting plans well in advance of moving out of the marital home or filing for divorce can be crucial for a smooth process that will benefit the children.