What is parenting time?

When it comes to understanding family law, a lot comes down to understanding the specific vocabulary that we – attorneys, judges, Guardians ad litem, custody evaluators, and others – use to describe them.

Some of that is actual legal language. The worst of it is literally in Latin – yes, Latin! – but there’s plenty of other things that are difficult to understand as well.
One of those things is ‘parenting time’. I get asked all the time what that actually means, and I get it! It’s a little confusing, especially since we still use ‘visitation’ a lot, too.

It’s kind of like ‘alimony’ is an old school word for what we now call ‘spousal support’. Spousal support is supposed to be more gender neutral, while alimony has a sort of ‘women-only’ connotation. Visitation, too, has fallen out of favor, as it implies that a non custodial parent (the parent who has the child less) is visiting, rather than actually parenting the child.

Instead of visitation, we try to use ‘parenting time’ to describe the time that the other parent spends with the child(ren). For that matter, we tend to call the parents co-parents, and what they do together as coparenting, rather than describing the parents as custodial and non custodial, or one parent as having visitation when he spends time with the children.

How much parenting time does a non custodial coparent receive?

The amount of parenting time that each parent receives is going to come down to what, specifically, the custody and visitation arrangement is. In most cases, that’s decided by an agreement between the parties. In other cases, though, it goes in front of the judge, who makes a final decision.

Custody can be part of a divorce case, which is decided in the circuit court. Alternatively, custody, visitation, and child support can be determined at the juvenile court level, either as an initial determination (for parties who never married, or parties who might be separated by not ready to divorce) or as a modification (based on a material change in circumstances) at any other point AFTER an initial determination is made.

In Virginia, there’s no one set of custodial arrangements that is applied. The law requires that the court consider all types of custody equally – primary physical, shared physical, and split physical – but there’s no requirement that 50/50 custody be awarded. (And thank goodness for THAT!)

We see all sorts of arrangements, but it’s probably fair to say that most litigated cases (cases where the judge decides) end up with some kind of shared custody, but shared doesn’t necessarily mean 50/50. Shared means an arrangement where the non custodial parent has more than 90 days of parenting time in the course of a calendar year.

Wait, why is it a petition for visitation, but instead of visitation we call the time he receives parenting time?

Yeah, it’s a bit inconsistent. I’m not sure why it hasn’t become a petition for ‘parenting time’ except that I think that what we’re doing when we refer to something as parenting time is more semantic than legal. Calling it visitation is still technically correct, but parenting time is more politically correct, if you know what I mean.

All the same, it reinforces the idea that both parents are coparenting, and that they share a responsibility to meet the best interests of the children.
My mom always used to say that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and I think this is a good example of that. In a lot of ways, using this verbiage really softens what we’re asking for in an agreement and makes an ex-husband or child’s father less likely to recoil just because what we’re saying sounds aggressive or diminishes the role he thinks he has as a parent.

It’s ultimately just a matter of semantics. It’s still a petition for visitation, so do with that what you will. But I think that thinking of it in terms of ‘parenting time’ instead of ‘visitation’ makes dividing the time that two coparents spend with the children a much easier pill to swallow.

For more information, or to schedule a consultation with a Virginia divorce and custody lawyer, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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