Super Dad: A Virginia Custody Phenomenon

“Super Dad” is a special kind of phenomenon that is unique to custody and visitation cases. In most families, while mom and dad are together, it’s the mom who bears the brunt of the parenting responsibility. It’s normally mom who drives the carpools, attends the parent teacher conferences, schedules all the doctors appointments, never forgets a birthday, runs out for poster board the night before the school project is due… and on and on and on. Both the physical and the emotional labor related to raising children is, in most families, well within the purview of the mother.

When a custody case begins, though, many moms find that things shift. A formerly uninvolved dad suddenly asks when the next doctor’s appointment is, or shows up at soccer practice unexpectedly. He suddenly has plans for what he’d like to do with the children on the weekend.

For an exhausted, overworked, and overstretched mom, the new involvement can be a welcome reprieve. After all, doing it all isn’t easy! It can feel like a breath of fresh air that dad is suddenly doing all the things you always wanted him to do before but that seemed to naturally shift to your shoulders alone.

Either that, or the sudden shift from regular dad to Super Dad can feel threatening. Now that things aren’t working, he wants to act like a family? Now that you’ve started to envision a different kind of future, he wants to step all over the responsibilities that are yours? If tensions are already escalated, this changing power and responsibility structure can make you feel extra suspicious and uncomfortable.

Why would a regular dad suddenly become Super Dad?

I don’t mean to scare you, but, generally, a regular dad becomes Super Dad because his attorney has recommended that he take on a more active role.

There are a lot of related points here, and I’m going to touch on all of them. Let’s start with the obvious.

Chances are, dad wants some parenting time. At this stage in the game, we don’t know what his ultimate goal for custody and visitation looks like – whether he’s fine with every other weekend, or whether he’s going for straight 50/50 custody. I do think, though, that it’s safe to say that if he’s suddenly taking on this role, it’s because he has been advised to do so.

Is it bad? No, not necessarily. After all, it’s good for the children, particularly in a time of upheaval, to feel reassured that both parents love them and plan to continue to be involved. Maybe even more involvement from dad is a positive byproduct of this separation; he no longer feels like you doing it for him is good enough, he has to take on a more active role himself in order to stay involved. That could be a good thing.

But still, a custody case is a custody case, and it’s important to be strategic.

Why would my child’s regular dad suddenly become Super Dad? What’s in it for him?

Well, there are a lot of ways to look at things when a regular dad suddenly becomes Super Dad. It may be that this is a bid for custody.

Is he trying to take custody from me?

In general, custody isn’t so much something that parents “win” or “lose”, though it can feel that way.

In most cases, where we have two regular, generally good, parents, the question is not whether mom or dad wins custody, but to what degree the parents will share custody. That doesn’t necessarily mean “shared” custody (which is what happens when the noncustodial parent – the parent who has the children less – has 90 or more days with the child during a calendar year) but is just a reflection that two parents are needed here, and that the court will try to find a way that allows both to stay involved in a meaningful way that suits the children’s best interests, as defined by the statutory best interests of the child factors.

There is no preference for mom over dad or dad over mom. Though that may have been a thing way back when, these days we generally find that the court’s goal is including both parents to the greatest degree possible.

There is no such thing as “one size fits all” in a custody and visitation case, and there are about a million different ways that the days in a year can be allocated between two parents. Chances are probably pretty good that, if he’s acting like Super Dad, he does want the custody and visitation schedule to reflect some time with him as well.

It’s also probably safe to assume that he’s a little scared of paying child support. This can be another big reason why a regular dad becomes a Super Dad – if he’s able to get a court order or an agreement giving him shared custody, his child support obligation will be less. Under a primary physical custody arrangement (where the non custodial parent has 89 or fewer days in a calendar year), his child support obligation will be at the maximum level. Once you reach shared physical custody status, though, it’s based on a sliding scale – the more days he has, the less his financial responsibility.

Without knowing more, it’s difficult for me to say whether his primary motivation is just to get more time with the children or to lower his obligation to pay child support.

Can I waive child support to get the custody and visitation schedule I want?

Maybe! If paying child support is his fear, you may be able to offer a reduced amount of child support to induce him to sign an agreement.

Some moms also waive or even reserve child support in exchange for their preferred visitation schedule, though this is not always possible.

Keep in mind that anything related to custody and visitation – child support, custody, and visitation – is modifiable based on a material change in circumstances. So, if he has an attorney, his attorney will likely tell him that he could agree to this – but then you could also turn around and petition the court for a modification of child support later. (Likewise, he could also petition for a change to custody and visitation if you did that.)

If child support is reserved, you don’t even need a change of circumstances. You could turn around and file a petition for child support in the juvenile court as soon as the ink is dry on your agreement. You’d get support according to the guidelines, too, because it’s the law.

He may be willing to agree to this to keep his support obligation low, but, particularly if he has an attorney, he may see through this and prefer to try to keep his child support obligation low by getting as much parenting time as possible.

Is there anything else I can give up in order to keep custody with me primarily?

Beware of this. I get it: custody and visitation is literally the most important thing for most moms, and there’s not anything we wouldn’t give up if only we could be assured that the we’d get primary physical custody.

The important thing to keep in mind is that custody, visitation, and child support are the only things that are modifiable. If yours is a divorce case as well, and you give up your right to something else (like spousal support, a piece of the retirement, or your share of the equity in the marital residence, for example), there’s no going back to modify it later. So, you could agree to get primary physical custody, give up some super valuable asset, and he could STILL petition the court to modify custody later. You can’t then go back and ask for the piece of retirement or whatever that you gave up in order to get custody.

Make sure that you don’t put yourself in a bad financial position in order to keep custody. Custody is always modifiable, and, anyway, you have to ensure that you’re able to support yourself if you want to be able to keep custody. It’s never a good idea to give up something financial in order to keep custody and visitation with you.

What should I do if my child’s dad became Super Dad? How can I make sure my case is strong, too?

It’s super important to think strategically when a regular dad becomes a Super Dad. It’s easy to make mistakes, especially because you’re probably feeling a little off kilter with this sudden change.

The most important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t deny him access to the children just because he’s suddenly encroaching on your territory. It’s a tempting thing to do, but it’s probably one of the things that could have the worst impact on your custody case overall – and it’s playing right into your child’s father’s attorney’s hands.

Remember custody factor number 6 (we sometimes call it the mom’s downfall) – which is, essentially, the propensity of each parent to support the child’s relationship with the other parent. If you’re denying time or making an effort to keep your child’s father away from your children, there could be serious repercussions later. You can do this to your mother in law; you can’t do it to your child’s father, especially not when there’s a custody case looming on the horizon.

I know it’s tricky, but you’ll have to try to find a new balance. If he asks for something that you’re not comfortable with, it’s often a good idea to suggest an alternative. Maybe not wing night at Hooter’s, but family night at Chick-fil-A? Maybe not this weekend camping, since you already planned to take the kids to Ocean Breeze, but next weekend might work better? Often, communicating in writing is helpful because then there’ll be a written record. You don’t ever want to appear as though you’re just rejecting something out of hand, but rather that you’re offering an alternative as a way to keep dad as involved as possible.

Keep in mind: his attorney is probably expecting you to say no. If you’re the one keeping dad out, it won’t reflect well on you. It could make you look controlling or like you’re not really able to coparent – those kinds of things can be reasons that an otherwise awesome mom might lose custody. You have to show that you can coparent with your child’s father, especially right now when things are up in the air.

If your child’s father is suddenly Super Dad, it’s a good idea to talk to an attorney about the specifics of your case and how to combat his behavior. Not all Super Dads are the same, so strategy can look a little different from one case to the next. With a plan in place, you can mount a good defense, and be sure to put yourself in as strong a position as possible in case your case winds up in front of a judge.

For more information or to speak with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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