Virginia received a D- in the 2014 Shared Parenting Report Card released by the National Parents Organization and the situation is not much better outside of the Commonwealth. Across the country the majority of states lack laws that promote shared parenting. In a recent article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Shared Parenting: The Answer to Poor Child Custody Grades,” author Kristen Leadbeater made a strong case for increasing shared parenting outcomes in Virginia. The key takeaway is that Virginia’s antiquated custody laws are failing families and a presumption in favor of shared parenting can improve relationships children have with both parents and will ultimately make those children more successful.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of shared parenting, it is basically a term to describe the combination of joint legal and joint physical custody. That means both parents have a role in making major decisions for the child and the child spends time living with both parents. Currently, only 17 percent of children with divorced or separated parents benefit form a shared parenting arrangement in Virginia. This is despite the fact that studies are increasingly clear on the point that being raised by both parents leads to positive outcomes for children. Children raised by a single parent are more likely to have trouble in school, commit crimes, and exhibit behavioral issues. That is why advocates for shared parenting believe states need to do more to encourage these arrangements by creating a presumption in favor of shared parenting.
"Best Interest of the Child" Standard
In Virginia, courts have the option of ordering sole custody or joint custody and they make their decision by looking at what is in the “best interest of the child.” There are ten factors that make up the “best interest of the child” in Virginia law. These factors include:
- Age, physical and mental condition of the child
- Age, physical and mental condition of each parent
- Existing relationships between each parent and the child
- Needs of the child
- Role each parent has played and will play in the development of the child
- Propensity of each parent to support the child’s relationship with the other parent
- Each parent’s willingness and interest in maintaining a relationship with the child
- Reasonable preference of the child
- Any history of family or sexual abuse
- Other factors the court deems necessary
Notably absent from Virginia’s custody statutes is any language expressing a preference or presumption for a shared parenting arrangement. Changing the law would mean that shared parenting becomes the new default custody arrangement unless there is an overriding reason (abuse, lack of interest, inability) for a different custody arrangement. With studies demonstrating the benefits of shared parenting, it is important that these arrangements become the new norm. The problem is that courts can be slow to change and adapt, which is why an explicit preference or presumption in favor of shared parenting in Virginia’s custody statutes is necessary. In modern times it is more likely that both parents are working and the current custody statutes just lead to overstressed moms and absentee dads. Shared parenting might not be the answer in every single custody situation, but for most it will improve the lives of parents and children.
The attorneys of Smith Strong, PLC can help you and your co-parent develop a shared parenting arrangement. Our attorneys have experience in all facets of child custody matters and can help you prepare a plan that works for you and is in the best interest of the child. Please call one of our offices at 804-325-1245 (Richmond) or 757-941-4298 (Williamsburg).
Va. Code Ann. § 20-124.1
Kristen Leadbeater, “Shared Parenting: The Answer to Poor Child Custody Grades,” Richmond Times-Dispatch (Jan. 28, 2015).