Family law has seen a seismic shift in how parenting time, once known as visitation, is divided between parents over the last twenty years or so. Long gone is the presumption that children need to be raised primarily by their mothers, while fathers are relegated to the odd weekend and a few days during the summer. Instead, the courts have come to realize that children benefit most from having two active and involved parents in their lives, regardless of gender. To that end, many courts in Illinois now lean towards equal parenting time schedules to ensure that children have ample time, and involvement, with both parents on a regular and consistent basis.
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However, it is important to recognize that a 50-50 schedule is not optimal, or even workable, for some families. And when deciding how to allocate parenting time between parents, the court must first and foremost consider the best interests of the children. Specifically, when deciding what will be best for the children, the courts must consider several factors, such as:
1. What Is the History of Parental Involvement?
For many judges, the parents’ individual involvement and interactions with the children prior to the litigation will lay a roadmap for the parenting schedule. If a parent has always been active and involved in the child’s life in a positive way, the judge is more likely to allocate a greater amount of parenting time to them. Alternately, if a parent has always had only minimal involvement, or has been inconsistent about exercising time offered to them, they are likely be to less parenting time because they have not shown a consistent interest in/dedication to spending time with, and caring for, the child/ren.
However, it is important to note that the judges will generally give less involved parents the opportunity to increase and expand their parenting time, primarily because courts do recognize that often one parent’s role has been historically minimized by the other parent via parental alienation. In those situations, judges will seek to increase the alienated parent’s involvement and time with the child to combat the negative effects of estrangement for a child.
2. What Are the Children’s Needs?
For many families, children have special physical and/or emotional needs must be considered when allocating parenting time. This can include mental and physical disabilities, mental health issues, or other special needs that can play a major role in the allocation of parenting time. For those children, having greater time with one parent may be about creating greater stability and consistency for the child to help manage their condition. Likewise, if one parent has been the child’s primary caretaker and decisionmaker on medical/mental health issues, that parent is likely to be allocated more time with the child because they have that caretaker/care provider relationship with the child, which the courts will not want to disrupt. That said, judges will also encourage the less involved parent to learn about the child’s condition, and treatment, to allow them to increase their involvement while ensuring that the child continues to receive all necessary medical and mental health with both parents.
3. How Close Together (or far Apart) Do the Parties Live?
Distance is one of the most critical issues when considering a 50-50 parenting time schedule, which will generally require that the child move between households at least once a week. Courts loathe to agree to a 50-50 schedule that will result in the child spending significant time in the car commuting between houses, to school, or to activities. If you live more than 30 minutes away from your ex, you should expect the judge to consider commutes and drive time when figuring out the parenting schedule. Specifically, judges want to avoid situations where children have long commutes to/from school, which often make for very early mornings and long evenings spent in the car instead of participating in activities or spending quality time with family and friends. In short, if your goal is 50-50 parenting time, it is important to live close (but not TOO close) to your ex to facilitate easy parenting time exchanges, school drop-offs, and the like. You may find this article about long-distance parenting plans helpful if you and your ex live far apart.
4. How Well Do the Parents Co-Parent and Communicate?
Another important consideration when creating a schedule where the parents have equal parenting time is how well they co-parent and communicate with each other. While a good co-parenting relationship isn’t mandatory for 50-50 time, as that determination is much more about the child than the parents, a supportive and flexible co-parenting relationship can go a long way to showing the judge that you and your ex have the maturity to handle the frequent contact that an equal parenting time schedule requires.
What Can a 50-50 Schedule Look Like?
There are multiple options for families looking to create a 50-50 parenting schedule. The most popular schedule, currently, is the 2-2-5 schedule, where each parent has two set days of the week, including overnights, and the parents alternate the weekends, which run Friday afternoon through Monday morning. That is an equal division of time that ensures that the child spends at least two overnights with each parent per week.
Some parents, especially those with older children, prefer a week on/week off schedule, so that the child has fewer transitions and has larger blocks of time in each household. However, for younger children, this is likely too long for the child/ren to be away from either parent at a time and is less likely to be implemented until the children are older (if at all).
While some parents think a schedule alternating days is the best way to ensure that the child only has minimal time away from either parent, the reality is that moving between homes on a daily, or near-daily, basis is a tremendous amount of change for a child. Most judges and practitioners prefer set schedules with fewer transitions, without long gaps of time away from either parent.
Finally, some parents balance out their parenting schedules by having one parent allocate the majority of weekday parenting time during the school year, while the other parent is allocated the majority of weekday parenting time during the summer. While this generally does not come out to an equal division of parenting time, it’s not far off and is another option that promotes greater stability and consistency for the child by having them spend the majority of the week at one parent’s home, rather than a mid-week move.
Best Practices in Allocating Parenting Time
Overall, what is most important when deciding how to divide up parenting time, it’s critical that your family consider your individual schedules and what works best for you and can accommodate your respective work schedules and other variables. Not all parents are able to enter into a fixed, set schedule due to shifting work schedules, but with some flexibility, the parents can still accomplish the goal of an equal division of time between them to ensure that the child/ren has regular and consistent time with both parents. Please consider getting the advice of an experienced Chicago Child Custody lawyer if you are facing parenting challenges during or after divorce.