By: Jonathan James
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Divorce, Geographic Restriction, and The Long-Distant Parent
As if divorce weren’t tough enough, throw in long-distance parenting and you’ve got a tricky proposition. In today’s fast-paced existence, the reality is that both parents aren’t always able to live within the bounds of standard language in your typical Texas custody agreement, whether the reason is financial (job) or personal (you name it).
Let’s back up a second: a standard custody agreement provides parents with basic parental rights and the accepted minimal amount of time with their child(ren). When the parents live within 100 miles of each other, a standard custody agreement usually assigns one parent full custody and the other parent visitation rights. Visitation rights are generally 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekends, Thursday evenings during the school year, and alternating holidays. A “geographic restriction” then, is a restriction placed on the parent determining primary residence on the limits of where that parent may determine residence. The wording here is often, “Dallas county and counties contiguous [or Collin County, Tarrant County, Rockwall, Ellis]” or something close.
So, if the parties are unable to agree on whether there should be a geographic restriction or what that restriction should be, the court will determine, based on the particulars of the situation, what restriction will be in the best interest of the child. This decision is fact specific and the goal is always keeping both parents close to, and actively involved in, the lives of their children. It’s worthwhile to note that each judge has his or her own ideas and preferences, and parents are smart to weigh their options regarding geographic restrictions with an attorney before rushing to take action.
The Basic Three In Long Distance
- Fairly straightforward and most common: by agreement, mom and dad decide upon the particulars of who will live where and with whom, based upon the details of their circumstance. A visitation schedule will be decided and agreed upon together, but a standard arrangement will usually include one weekend visitation a month, extended time in summer, and at least ½ of all holidays.
- Contested Trial: one parent wants kids to move with them out of state (beyond the county area that is a ”normal” geographic restriction). This is not an easy sell. It is difficult to win a contested trial on this issue unless a circumstance arises that so changes the situation, it renders the children in a better condition if the restriction is lifted. This might include a parent who finds a great job located far away. Particularly if the parent is currently unemployed or it’s a stretch to pay for the needs of their child, the court might deem the distance worth it. Every effort would be made to ensure the child would see the other parent as often as possible. Specific details might be included in the new language of the order dealing with the logistics and costs of travel for the children to see the other parent.
- They always live apart: this includes that one-night stand in Vegas (that apparently didn’t stay there) or when a parent doesn’t know he or she is one until a child and arrives on the proverbial doorstep.
Think Now Instead Of Later
In and of itself, none of these situations are insurmountable. The details can seem complicated but can be thoughtfully worked through in a way that ends up adequate for everyone. But what I have seen happen too many times is the couple who wants so desperately for a divorce to be final, they don’t focus on the fine print. For instance, if there is an agreement that Jane can move to Seattle with Joey Jr., and that Joe Sr., who still lives in Dallas, can visit monthly, who is paying for junior’s plane ticket? If junior is only 3, is he getting on a plane by himself, or is mom accompanying him? Where is she staying in Dallas? Does the new girlfriend know about this arrangement? If Joe flies to town to visit junior, where is he staying? Is mom okay leaving junior with dad for the whole weekend? Kids also grow: they have sports or lessons on the weekends, sleepovers or campouts, and friends they want to see, houses they’d like to toilet paper (do they still do that?). At 3, Junior might be just fine with the back and forth (planes are fun!), but how will he feel when he’s12? Because believe me, they will be before you know it.
The Geographic Takeaway
No one says you have to be the good guy, and no one may be watching, but be sure that your kid is and will be aware of the decisions you make and how you thought about them in your determinations. The goal of best interest of the child isn’t just a phrase in the decree—your kids didn’t ask you to get divorced, they’ve had to deal with the fallout—their best interest is what should be most important.
My advice is pretty simple for parents doing long distance: play ball and be flexible. Even if you don’t want to. If you think of the other parent as part of the team that makes your family run as well as possible instead of focusing on your hurt, you and your kid and even your ex will be better for it. This includes remembering that flights get delayed, flat tires happen, plans can fall through; the two adults, and not through the child, must communicate with each other directly and respectfully about all of the details. If nothing else, remember your children are watching. You are how they learn to navigate relationships; you can either show them life can work even when some parts are not ideal, or you can display the cost of hanging on to righteousness or anger.
If you are long-distance with your kid, be creative. Set up a weekly FaceTime, send each other frequent texts or jokes and get the details about their lives from them or your ex so when you are together, you don’t have to get to know each other or thaw every time. Maybe obvious but perhaps most important: is it an absolute necessity for you to move? Sit with that one for a minute. With our mobile society, more and more people can work remotely. Get creative with an employer. You might be surprised what they will consider. Regardless, remember that what you do today added up over time creates your tomorrow, not just for you, but for your children as they grow to adulthood.
About the Author
Jonathan James is a family law attorney with Hance Law Group, PC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.