Custody Labels – Do They Matter?

Rachel K. Miller, Esq.Custody, Divorce

Written by Rachel K. Miller, as summarized from Daniel A. Bloom
Richardson Bloom & Lines LLC

Parents become very focused on labels when dealing with child custody matters.  Family law practitioners often hear the following from their clients: “I need to be designated as primary parent!” or “I will not agree to joint custody”.  Of course, clients do not know that Georgia law does not reference the term “primary physical custody”.  Neither parent needs to be designated as the primary, but clients have heard the term used and they want it for themselves.  In fact, if you took a survey of Georgia case law, you will note that courts often designate one parent as the primary physical custodian, even though that term is not in the statute.    

The big question is… “Does it really matter?”  And, the answer is one that every client dreads hearing – “it depends”.  Let’s look at some specific scenarios where it could matter.  For purposes of child support, if neither parent is designated as the custodial parent, or if the parties equally share physical custody, then court will award support to the parent who earns less.  For purposes of the dependency exemption, the custodial parent is allowed to take the exemption, but the parties are free to agree otherwise, so long as they complete the appropriate paperwork each year.  For purposes of determining the school district, most schools want the child to reside with the in-district parent for the majority of the school year.  When looking at those scenarios, it would seem that the label does not matter.

The even bigger question, as Dan notes in his article, is… “Do we want it to matter?”  Do we want children to have one parent who is “primary” and one parent who is “secondary”?  Do we want children to recognize one parent as superior to the other?  Do we want the label to become a self-fulfilling prophecy; in other words, will the parent who is designated as the “secondary” parent ultimately become the back-seat parent?  Or, do we want children to have two parents who worked together to arrange a parenting plan that is in their best interests? 

At RBL, we take pride in being child-centric.  Of course, we are zealous advocates for our clients; but, we also recognize that, at the end of the day, the children are the ones affected by the parenting plans we create.  We leave the case, but the parents and children have to live with the results.  We try to encourage our clients to forget about the labels and think about what plan works for their family.  We try to encourage our clients to see the forest through the trees.  That is not easy for many clients, especially when coupled with the emotions that they are already experiencing from the dissolution of their marriage. 

If you are the client, try to remember three key points.  (1) Remember that your RBL attorney is there to help you separate the emotional from the intellectual.  Even if you cannot see it, we can.  (2) Remember that your RBL attorney has been through many divorce matters and has listened to many practitioners and researchers.  Learn from our experiences.  (3) Remember that labels do not matter! What matters is that the parenting plan fits your family’s specific situation.

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