Co-parenting with an ex-partner can present many challenges—even for the most emotionally-evolved exes. However, for many parents, the biggest challenge can be setting aside their differences and recognizing that their children have a right to enjoy a meaningful relationship with both of them.
Absent allegations of violence or other egregious conduct that endangers the welfare of a child, frequent and meaningful access with both parents is widely held to be in the children’s “best interests.” Under the law of a majority of states, the “best interests of the child” is the standard against which custody decisions are determined. In making a “best interests” determination, a Court will look to myriad factors, including the fitness of each parent, the stability of each parent’s home environment, and the nature and quality of the child’s relationship with each parent. While this standard may seem amorphous and subjective, there are certain concrete considerations, such as the custodial parent’s willingness to foster a relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent, which play a significant role in determining what kind of custodial arrangement is in a child’s best interest.
The willingness and commitment of the custodial parent to encourage the relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent cannot be understated. In fact, in many instances, it is the determinative factor in deciding custody. As such, it is critical that the custodial parent foster the relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent by, for example, including the non-custodial parent in significant events in the child’s life and encouraging their communication and frequent contact. On the contrary, if the custodial parent interferes or undermines the child’s relationship with the non-custodial parent, it can raise an inference that he or she is ill-equipped to have custody and act in the child’s best interests. The acts of interference do not have to be abject obstructions, such as refusing to produce the child for his or her scheduled access time with the non-custodial parent. Instead, they can be subtle, such as making unilateral decisions about the child without first seeking the other parent’s input or marginalizing the other parent by failing to keep them apprised of events or activities that are meaningful to the child. Over time, these subtle acts can undermine the non-custodial parent’s role in the child’s life and cause their relationship to fracture. It can also cause a judge to distrust the custodial parents and view all of his or her actions—even if innocent—in a negative light.
In extreme cases, this is referred to as parental alienation–—the acts of one parent that are designed to program a child to denigrate and reject the other parent. Parental alienation is frequently alleged in protracted custody battles where parents are unable or unwilling reach an agreement as to how they will share time and make decisions on behalf of their children. Not only can it be the stumbling block to reaching an agreement, but parental alienation can render the children so conflicted that the assistance of psychologists, therapists, and other interventionists is often necessary to help restore the relationship between the child and the parent from whom they have become alienated. If not remedied during the litigation to a court’s satisfaction, parental alienation can form the basis of a court’s decision to transfer custody away from the parent who is alienating the children from the other parent.
The year-long custody battle between Brad Pitt (“Brad”) and Angelina Jolie (“Angelina”) is emblematic of this phenomenon and how courts often respond to allegations of parental alienation. Although the details of their litigation are largely unknown, it has been widely reported that Angelina, the custodial parent of the parties’ six children, was accused of interfering in Brad’s relationship with the children. In response to these allegations, it is reported that the judge ordered a summer parenting schedule for Brad under the supervision of therapists and admonished Angelina that her interference and marginalization of Brad could result in her losing custody.
Whether you are a high-profile celebrity couple like Brad and Angelina or normal parents embroiled in a custody battle, the laws governing custody and the ensuing consideration of a child’s best interests are applied to everyone in equal measure. As such, recognizing from the outset that the law demands that the custodial parent foster and encourage the relationship between the children and the non-custodial parent is essential to understanding how to navigate the oft-treacherous waters of custody litigation.
What is more, it can help position you at the outset as the friendly parent and engender confidence from a court that you can and will continue to put the children’s interests ahead of your own and encourage their relationship with the other parent. Setting that impression at the inception of any litigation regarding your children will carry a great deal of weight and assuage any concerns about your ability to act as the custodial parent.