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Mother divorcing after 20 year marriage; father never helped much as a parent; does he have a chance to get 50/50 parenting plan?

Your Question:
Hi - My husband and I have been married for 20 years and have three kids - 8, 14, 17. He has always held with the traditional spousal roles in a marriage - he brings home a paycheck, does nothing around the house. I am a professional self employed woman who has always had primary responsibility for the children - I've taken care of them exclusively all their lives, planned my business meetings and work around their schedules, etc., and considered myself fortunate that I was able to do this.

We are about to divorce. My husband has now decided that he wants partial custody of the kids - 7 days with him, 7 days with me. He works extended hours, has never taken care of them, and is planning to make use of his family to help him care for the kids in the time he has them. He is a heavy drinker and so are most of his family members.

My question is this - what are the chances of him getting part custody of the children? I should mention he does not want this divorce, and it is possible but not likely he is threatening this situation in order to scare me.

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My Answer:
Hi back atcha,

Would you believe most people don't even say "hi" or "hello" when they write to me?

There's no such term as "partial custody." You haven't described a person who should lose all parental rights of his kids. You'll likely end up with joint legal custody (i.e., you each have some say in major decisions in the kids' lives).

If you have a competent attorney, I do believe the chances are very high that you will end up with the majority timeshare of physical custody (whether it's called sole physical custody, joint physical with you as primary parent, or some other term, it largely doesn't matter). You describe that you have been the primary parent (with little help from dad) for many years.

That said, I'm sure you realize that you won't be with the kids 100% of the time after separation/divorce. It's likely that the father may end up with 20% to 30% of custodial time; so long as he isn't violent, abusive, dangerously addicted (see below), or perverted.

There are a few factors that may have an impact on the final outcome in an evaluation or court ruling:

  • The two older kids are old enough that their perspectives would carry some weight with a judge or evaluator. You should strive to keep all the kids out of any decision-making and you should NOT put any pressure on them to choose. However, if an evaluator or judge expresses a desire to hear from them, or if your husband wants them to testify, what they say will be considered.

  • You say that your husband is a heavy drinker. If he is an alcoholic, that will play a huge role in a custody ruling. However, you should really really think about whether you want to make this accusation. Some people may consider one drink in the evening to be "heavy drinking." Yet, it's not by most standards. If your husband is a drunk, then bring it up. If he drinks and drives, then definitely bring it up. But if he enjoys a few cans of beer on the weekends and perhaps a cocktail with dinner, then drop it. Same thing about his family... if they're not outright drunks, then you are going to sound like an angry, hyper-dramatic woman claiming that his whole family is evil. Your position is already strong, so don't weaken it.

  • If YOU have any skeletons in your past that are relevant to custody rulings, your husband will bring them up. A suicide attempt years ago? Cocaine problems? Playing strip poker with your son's high school football team? Think about what your husband knows about you, if anything alarming. Most people who are like how you describe yourself don't really have anything in their past to worry much about. Tried marijuana in college? Big deal, irrelevant. But do think hard about major shortcomings you have (and correct them pronto!) and be prepared to explain any mistakes you've made in the past, if any.

  • The husband's current interest in being a more involved father will be considered as well. He may claim, "Well, my wife was a control-obsessed harpie who wouldn't ever let me spend one-on-one time with the kids, but now I can really build my fatherly bond with them." Whatever he says won't carry nearly as much weight as you having been the primary parent for years, but it could have some amount of influence. From what you describe about his schedule, I can't imagine he'll be taken seriously, unless he's changing his work scheduled.

Also, for the sake of the kids, always welcome the idea of this man becoming a better father. It may infuriate you to ask yourself why he couldn't have been like that for 17 years, but that's now irrelevant. It's in the kids' best interest that he DOES become more involved.

As I said, I think that with a competent attorney, you're likely to get joint custody with you having primary timeshare with the kids (i.e., based only on the circumstances you provided). But, after you get what you want in court, the kids will REALLY win if Dad proves himself to be a new man over the course of a year or two, and you eventually agree to let him have more time with the kids. If you see a reborn father, and if you let him be even more involved, you'd be sitting at the VIP table of the Deserves Good Kharma annual ball.

Finally, if this man is an active alcoholic, you can ask the court to order rehab too. That's not a mean tactic -- getting cleaned up would serve him and serve his kids.

Once you file, be sure to give mediation a try. Go into mediation thinking about the exact schedule that you'd propose for parenting. It would be ideal if you can avoid court. Stay focused on the kids' welfare at all times during court and mediation. Good luck, and please let me know as things move along.


This website gives common sense advice that is not intended to act as legal guidance nor psychological guidance. The author is neither an attorney nor licensed psychologist. For specific legal guidance or specific psychological guidance, consult with a licensed professional.

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