We often receive questions from clients about a commonly used custody plan by trial courts, the “Siegenthaler” schedule. Why, given the very unique nature of each family situation, do courts tend to favor this schedule of alternating weekends and one weeknight overnight? Is this considered the baseline for all custody awards, whether joint or sole physical custody? How much flexibility do I have if I want a different schedule that offers more time? Why do courts not start from a baseline of pure 50/50 shared custodial time?
The “Siegenthaler” schedule takes its name from the case of Siegenthaler v. Siegenthaler, an appellate decision from Eastern District in 1988. The trial court awarded mother sole physical custody and father visitation, specifically the second and fourth weekends of every month and certain holidays every other year. Father appealed, claiming that schedule too limited. The Eastern District agreed, and crafted its own schedule that added to the alternating weekends six weeks of custody during the summer and an alternating schedule of specific holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Presidents Day and Martin Luther King Day) as well as winter and spring breaks. This decision subsequently became the “floor” for visitation in all custody cases – or did it?
The “famous” or “infamous” Siegenthaler schedule originated from a per curiam decision of one panel of the Eastern District who, admittedly, made up the schedule somewhat out of thin air, and certainly without any prior case law setting out such specific details or from the parties themselves. Though the Eastern District would later hold (only three years later) that Siegenthaler is not the floor, but limited to the facts of that case, family court judges did adopt it as a “go to” schedule that parties could adjust to their circumstances.
Ironically, Siegenthaler was not intended as a minimally appropriate schedule of custody, and yet has become a common form in our circuit courts. Further, changes by the General Assembly that require specific parenting plans have made parts of Siegenthaler a requirement for every custody schedule – all of the major holidays, spring and winter break, and summer – at least to the extent that every parenting plan must explicitly state how each of these time periods must be allocated between parents.
If you hear Siegenthaler and think you must take that as your normal schedule, think again. The law imposes no Siegenthaler minimum or maximum. The legislature has suggested implicitly joint physical custody should be relatively equal, but our courts take different views on exactly what is equal, to the point that the Siegenthaler schedule as it exists today may satisfy that criteria. But that is not a hard and fast legal rule. To the contrary, parents who want equal or close to equal time should fight for such time and think creatively how to structure a plan that suits that goal, whether every other week custody, 4-3-3-4 plans or 5-2-2-5 plans.
Generally, so long as the court awards joint physical custody, a party can seek as close to equal time as that party desires and can establish in the best interest of the child. For sole physical custody awards, visitation may be as generous or as stingy as a court can justify – in other words, Siegenthaler is not a guaranteed ceiling though in practice still proves a ready reference guide.
Working through the maze of parenting plans and custodial arrangements that work best for you requires experience and ingenuity from your attorney.
If you have questions about your custodial plan, contact us – we can help.