What is split physical custody?

Posted on May 30, 2022 by Katie Carter

If you’re a millennial like me, and you’ve given it any thought at all, you’ll probably agree that Nick Parker and Elizabeth James, from the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap are among the worst parents in the history of the world.

I love Dennis Quaid, I really do, and little Lindsay Lohan is darling as can be. Natasha Richardson, too, bless her soul, was charming and sophisticated and, honestly, the kind of mom that, in many ways, I hoped I’d grow up to be.

Well, I don’t have a butler, but I also don’t have an asinine custody arrangement that requires that I keep one twin – forgetting about the other – away from her other parent and sibling indefinitely. Even now, such an arrangement is shocking.

But, on its face, it’s possible – it’s split custody. Now, technically, split custody doesn’t require that one parent take each kid and keep them away from the other parent or siblings; it just requires that there be different parenting arrangements for each child.

Even by divorce attorney standards, having a custody arrangement where the children never see each other or their other parent is incredibly weird. And, trust me, I’ve seen some really, really, really weird stuff. But this is just a whole other level of awful.

Normally, split physical custody is something that the parties agree to; it’s not normally something that a judge would award (though it’s possible). Under the current Virginia statute, there’s no presumption for 50/50 custody or anything like it. There’s only a requirement that judges consider all forms of custody – shared physical custody, primary physical custody, and split physical custody – equally.

Still, split physical custody is a rare occurrence. When I have seen it happen, it’s usually for some pretty egregious reasons. I can think of one case, off the top of my head, where there were two children, who were adopted, and one had abused the other. In that case, the parties divided the children, and traded them back and forth, so that the children weren’t together in the same home at the same time. They were trying desperately to help both of them, but felt that keeping the children separate was in their best interests.

In the case of biological siblings, though, it doesn’t happen very often because the court views the sibling relationship as being incredibly important. Still, sometimes disabilities or other special needs of a child can require different things for different kids. It’s not completely unheard of, at least in that context. Maybe one parent lives closer to a special school, or to the child’s therapist, or whatever. It’s entirely possible that two different children can have two different sets of needs.

It’s possible that the judge could award it, too, but its unlikely. We don’t divide up children as consolation prizes so that each parent has half of the children. It’s far, far more likely that some kind of shared custody would be ordered, with the children going back and forth between the parties homes. Of course, that can be difficult, too, especially if the parties live far away from each other and the kids are enrolled in school – but, still, solutions can generally be found.
I don’t tell you about split physical custody to scare you, but instead to let you know about the options available to you. As a tool in the toolbox, it can be an effective – if rarely utilized – option for custody and visitation. I’m not suggesting it as a ‘one size fits all’ solution; in fact, I think it’s appropriate that it’s not often done. Sibling relationships are important. So too are the children’s ongoing relationship with BOTH of their coparents.

Though I still love The Parent Trap, and I watch it whenever it comes on TV, I don’t idealize their ridiculous custody arrangement. Seriously, I think that Hallie and Annie would legitimately be in therapy for YEARS because of what they went through. Can you imagine finding out that you had a twin at the age of 11? And a parent in an entirely different country who is a total stranger to you?

Love the movie, but I hate the premise. It’s not healthy or normal, but it’s also not a good way of thinking about split physical custody, even though it’s probably the most obvious example of it in pop culture.

For more information, to request a consultation, or to get a copy of our custody book for Virginia moms, give us a call at 757-425-5200.