Before the current Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act adopted by Missouri in the late 1970s, Missouri law clearly favored women as custodians of younger children – those under the age of seven. Even after the passage of the UDMA, the assumption that kids went with the mom remained at the forefront of many family court judges.
But today, the law and the reality have met on common ground. The statutes governing custody favor no one gender; rather, they direct courts to look to a list of factors and determine which custodial arrangement would be in the best interests of the child. Further, the courts recently amended these statutes to establish a presumption in favor of joint legal and joint physical custody, which would mean both parents share in the decision making and the physical time with the child. Indeed, each year state representatives introduce legislation to assure that equal time is the norm for custody, and more and more courts have chosen that equal time as the default option in custody cases.
Moms can still have advantages in custody if, during the marriage, they served as the principal caregiver for the children, and the parties intended that state of affairs to continue until the children reached majority. But these moms will have to establish that both parents intended this arrangement.
Finally, until the legislature mandates equal time unless it would be against the best interests of the child, in families where mom has been the main childcare provider, simple inertia may sway a court not to rock the boat, assuming that if the family operated this way while intact, it should continue to operate that way after dissolution.
The social science evidence shows that equal or substantially equal time with both parents best assures that the children grow up emotionally and psychologically healthy and well-adjusted. And yet, lifestyle choices may make different arrangements a better option because one parent may be traveling for work or have unusual hours. Parents should take control of the process by structuring a parenting plan that works for the way they have lived and will continue to live. Just saying “equal time” does not mean a one size fits all plan; parents can divide time in many different ways.
In the end, gender presumptions will not carry the day; parents need to make arguments that favor the best interests of the child, and in some cases, that may favor one parent having more time.
If you have questions about gender roles and child custody, contact us – we can help.