Families Change
Teen Guide to Separation & Divorce

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Custody and Parenting Time

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When your parents live together, they are both responsible for taking care of you. When your parents stop living together, this might change.

For example, if your parents can’t agree on custody and parenting time, even with the help of a mediator, they will have to go to court and have a judge decide. If this happens, the judge can order sole custody or joint custody.

  • Sole custody means you live with one parent who takes care of you every day.
  • Joint custody means you might live part of the time with one parent and part of the time with the other. Or you might live with one parent, but both parents will make decisions together about things in your life.

Here are some things that will be taken into consideration when the judge is making decisions about custody:

  • What will give you the fewest changes to deal with?
  • Are both of your parents healthy and responsible?
  • Can your parents communicate and make joint decisions without conflict?
  • What are your parents' plans for themselves and for you?
  • How close do you feel to each of your parents?
  • Do family and friends live near each of your parents?
  • What is your opinion? (The older you are, the more likely the judge will take your opinion into account.)

If one parent has custody, the other parent usually has parenting time or visitation, which means that you visit him or her. There are lots of different ways to arrange how you spend time with the parent who has parenting time. Visits might be for a few hours a week, a few days a week, just weekends, or another arrangement that fits your family. If the parent with parenting time lives far away, parenting time can also include keeping in touch in other ways, like phone calls, e-mails, and letters. Parenting agreements may be very specific—spelling out specific hours and days for visits—or very general and flexible.

Q & A

Who decides who I will live with?

Ideally, your parents will make the decisions together about who you will live with and how that will work. Your opinion should be taken into account.

If they can't decide themselves, they might go to a mediator for help in reaching an agreement. Or they might have to go to court and have a judge make the decisions for them.

What is the difference between separation and divorce?

When two people have been living together and they decide not to live together anymore, they are separated. However, when married people separate, their marriage has not yet ended. They have to get a divorce to legally end a marriage. Common-law couples don't have to get a divorce, because there is no marriage to end.

My parents never married. Do they have to go through the same process that married parents do when they split up?

Parents who chose to live together without getting married don't have to get a divorce, because there is no marriage to end. But they do need to decide what will happen to their children and how they will divide their property.