Why modern custody agreements look so different: ‘Anything goes, as long as the children are happy’
By Danielle Braff Chicago Tribune
Lucenda Jacobs’ 13- and 15-year-old children have their own home in Houston, but they’re never alone.
Every two weeks, Jacobs and her ex-husband swap in and out of their children’s home. The two parents bought the home, which the family refers to as “the nest,” following their divorce in 2016 after 15 years of marriage. It has two master suites, one for each parent. (Jacobs said she locks hers during her two weeks off.)
“Neither of us wanted to not be in our children’s lives 100 percent, and we wanted stability,” said Jacobs,
a CPA and the author of “Nesting.”
The Houston family has an untraditional custody arrangement, but they’re not alone.
“The idea is that dad used to have alternative weekends and alternative Wednesdays — you used to see all the
dads at Denny’s on Wednesdays — but it’s not the norm anymore,” said Lynn Mirabella, partner at Mirabella,
Kincaid, Frederick & Mirabella, based in Wheaton, Ill. “Now, we talk about what’s best for the child, instead of
what the family wants.”
Mothers used to have all the power when it came to custody arrangements, but times have changed dramatically in the past few years.
When she started practicing divorce law about three decades ago, mothers automatically received primary custody, and fathers saw their children a few days each month, said Nancy Chemtob, New York-based partner at Chemtob, Moss & Forman.
But in 1999, Chemtob helped a father receive sole custody, and divorce cases began to shift, giving more and more equality to dads.
The Wednesday night dinner turned into an overnight visit, and the weekend at dad’s turned into a Friday-to-Monday stay.
A 2017 study published in Science Daily backed up the dads’ requests for time with their kids, finding that preschoolers had fewer psychological and behavioral problems if their divorced parents had joint custody — even if they bounced from house to house — than those who lived mostly or only with one parent.
Today, parents are modernizing custody agreements, and anything goes, as long as the children are happy.
“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ custody arrangement,” said Loren Costantini, of the Law Offices of Lawrence
Costantini. “The new trend in custody is a mindful approach, where the parents collectively and peacefully create
a parenting plan that fits the needs and schedules of the family.”
When lawyer Anne Mitchell, author of “They’re Your Kids Too,” realized that she had stepped into the same sphere as her clients, her first thought was how to make her son’s life continue along as smoothly as possible after divorce. The answer: Do nothing that would affect him.
So Mitchell and her ex-husband continued living together but moved into different bedrooms. This arrangement lasted two years, until her ex had to relocate for work.
“It worked very well — we functioned as a family, and we co-parented in a cooperative manner,” Mitchell said, explaining that they still ate dinner together as a family and hung out in all the common areas together without any difficulties.
Living together post-divorce and even eating family meals or sharing a home on alternating weeks takes a special, peaceful situation, said Libby James, a Charlotte, N.C., family attorney.
“I’ve seen situations where parents get so paranoid about their ex coming into their space that they lock drawers or
closets,” James said. “Another problem is a lack of balance in house cleaning: One parent might show up at Friday at
6 p.m. and discover the other parent has left the house a disaster. There can be fights over food and supplies too.”
But a contemporary custody arrangement doesn’t necessarily mean exes have to live together or share a space.
Amanda Garcia and her ex, David Carranza, live about 15 minutes away from each other on the Northwest Side of Chicago, and when they broke up about a year ago, they casually decided to split their son’s time week by week with a Sunday to Sunday arrangement.
“It sucks having him gone for a week, but we both sat down and said, ‘It’s not really about us and our feelings,’” said
Garcia, who is a stay-at-home mom to their 4-year-old son during her week and is in school studying to be a clinical
massage therapist. “His dad is very much a part of his life, and that’s kind of how we wanted to keep it.”
During the weeks that her ex has their son, Garcia said, she communicates with him virtually whenever she or her son want to chat.
Other families rejected the old “Wednesday and alternating weekend” agreement because it left fathers with minimal time with the kids, but they’re still searching for the perfect solution.
Brad Wenzel, a commercial lender for a community bank, lives in Coppell, Texas, and shares custody of his 13-year-old son.
He and his ex-wife originally left their son in their marital home, and they took turns moving back into the house to spend time with him.
“This was challenging, as you never knew the conditions of the house when you moved back in,” Wenzel said. “This worked
best for the child, though, as he was in his element during difficult times.”
But it didn’t work for long for the parents.
So now, his ex-wife has their son Mondays and Tuesdays, while he has him Wednesdays and Thursdays, and they alternate on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“There are no perfect solutions when dealing with custody agreements. The best thing you can do is to put the differences aside
and focus on what’s best for the child,” Wenzel said. “They get one childhood, so do the best, so they can look back and say they
Danielle Braff is a freelancer.