In every custody case, the court must determine a physical custody arrangement. The court can choose between sole physical custody and joint physical custody, but the joint physical custody has not usually meant what it sounds like – absolutely or nearly equal amounts of physical time with each parent. In Missouri, joint physical custody has meant a parent could have two-thirds of the time and the other parent one-third of the time. Putting aside the issue of whether that is fair to the parent, what is best for the child?
Recently, as this article details, a study of all of the county courts in Ohio and their parenting plans followed up on the options the courts chose. The results might be surprising: the children did best when they spent equal amounts of time with each parent, even when the children were infants or toddlers, and the children did not do as well when the physical custody time skewed in favor of one parent.
These results could have multiple explanations. For instance, parents who would be more likely to get along and have less conflict might opt for pure joint physical custody, which could influence the well-being measured in the study. But the study claims to have accounted for some of this selection bias. It seems fair to read the study as suggesting that requiring parents to exercise equal periods of time forces parents to work together and assures children have sufficient exposure to both parents to mimic the good aspects of an intact family.
Does it make sense to have courts entering a wide variety of parenting plan options, particularly if some lead to situations where children fare less well? Should courts use pure joint physical custody and depart from that only in rare situations? The Missouri legislature has been moving in the direction of pure joint physical custody in the last five years, but the courts in Missouri, like those in Ohio, continue to use a wide range of parenting plan options.
The study in Ohio certainly suggests more studies in different states should follow to see if the same patterns emerge, and if so, whether at that point courts should have fewer options. If pure joint physical custody is best for children, courts certainly should be using it as a “go to” default option. Those who argue otherwise would suggest the evidence is not there yet, and that courts should have flexibility because families are so different. However, the Ohio study showed that assumption may be faulty.
We have progressed a long way in a short time with what some call the custody revolution, and we have only started to apply social science to determine which physical custody plans optimize child well-being. But if Missouri legislative action is any indication, the trend is toward what the Ohio study found – using pure joint custody as the default option.
If you have questions about custody plans, contact us – we can help.