Divorce is never easy. It feels overwhelming, especially when children are involved, as in the Jolie-Pitt divorce. For any parents heading down this path - regardless of their level of celebrity - I recommend taking a deep breath, then considering these top three issues:
Legal vs. Physical Custody: Initial reports on the Jolie-Pitt divorce state that Jolie has requested "physical custody" with Pitt having "visitation" of their 6 children. For starters, it's important to understand the difference between legal and physical custody. For a healthier approach, as you navigate this topic and the long term effects of decisions that you may be forced to make - have a thorough understanding of your children's routines and relationship with each parent. Though every state has its own set of rules, generally speaking:
- Legal Custody means the ability to make major decisions for the children, on issues such as education, healthcare, and religion. If someone is seeking Primary or Sole Legal Custody, they may likely be requesting that he or she be granted the authority to make such major decisions. This does not cut you out of the equation.
- There is a common misconception that being granted sole legal custody prevents the other parent from having a relationship with the children - this isn't the case, barring extreme circumstances. And in the Jolie-Pitt case, if Jolie is indeed requesting sole legal custody, it's important to note that it is not uncommon to ask a Court for this even when you anticipate an agreement on custody - or a more formal ruling from the bench. Is the other establishing the claim for the ultimate resolution or is she putting her best foot forward?
- Often, when one parent hears the other request sole legal custody, they believe this will leave them devalued and minimized in their children's lives. Such response will only increase the animosity and will often reduce the chances of a healthy divorce. Instead, it may be that the parent requesting legal custody just wants the flexibility to make decisions without having to consult the other parent each time. Consider this not-so-novel concept: Just because you didn't feel like a great spouse, and your marriage be coming to an end, doesn't mean you weren't a great parent.
- Physical custody is typically where the children lay their heads on their pillows at night. What is the parenting schedule that would work for your family and your children? While some states have specific rules about a parenting schedule, others look to the children's existing routines and a "best interests" standard often creating equal opportunities for both parents (despite any traditional roles that may have existed before separation).
Now Ditch The Terminology: Once you have an understanding of the options, ignore the legal terms and concentrate on your goals - especially if you are dealing with custody. As a parent, take the time to really think about what your children need (even if that means you have to change your own routines and habits to fit theirs). Depending on where the children reside most of the time, their schedules and each parent's schedule, having one parent have primary (or sole) physical custody may make sense for the children. In fact, you may be able to work through an agreement that allows one parent who has sole physical custody but who works collaboratively with the other parent on major decisions. Either way, don't let the assertions with legal jargon make you crazy.
Transparent Finances: A healthy divorce will be challenging unless resources and assets are disclosed from both sides. Understanding your marital estate and excluding what should not be considered for purposes of division will help smooth your path to divorce. Often what brings about so much contention to any dissolution is the fear that your spouse is hiding assets from you and that they have been planning this separation long before you knew it was coming.
When considering all of these issues, your first thought - and your first conversation with your family lawyer - should be about setting goals. Then, listen to what the other spouse wants. Decide whether there is an alignment before you jump to any conclusions. If it was an ideal world, what would you want to see as the outcome of these divorce proceedings? What constitutes a healthy divorce for you, and for your children may not be what you expected (or even wanted) but can still be a healthy opportunity for your family.
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