Obstacles Fathers Face in Trying to Get Joint Custody of Their Children

I have been asked by a reader to answer two questions.

The first: whether I believe courts generally apply a double standard in the treatment of mothers and fathers when courts make their child custody and parent-time (visitation) orders. The answer is “yes”. Not just “yes,” but “unquestionably, yes.”

The second: What do fathers need to do to meet and overcome that double standard? This is not a polar or closed question, so it requires a prescriptive response.

Before I answer the second question in detail, we need to understand—really and fully understand—why courts generally apply a double standard in the treatment of mothers and fathers when courts make their child custody and parent-time orders. Several volumes could easily be dedicated to the reasons why, so understand what I provide here is not merely concise but rather terse and not exhaustive (though no less true). In no particular order, here are the reasons I’ve encountered:

  • Few will admit it, but most people—both men and women—harbor the belief that women are better parents than men generally.[1]Many judges (both men and women) literally find it impossible to conceive that a father can be as effective a parent as a mother. Consequently, many courts substitute scrutiny and analysis of each particular parent in each particular case for playing the odds by awarding sole primary custody of the children to the mothers.
  • For jurisdictions that base child custody and parent time decisions upon which parent is the “primary caregiver,” courts inexcusably apply a needlessly biased definition of “primary caregiver.” For example, in Utah, “primary caregiver” has been defined as:

We believe that the choice in competing child custody claims should instead be based on function-related factors. Prominent among these, though not exclusive, is the identity of the primary caretaker during the marriage. Other factors should include the identity of the parent with greater flexibility to provide personal care for the child and the identity of the parent with whom the child has spent most of his or her time pending custody determination if that period has been lengthy. Another important factor should be the stability of the environment provided by each parent.

(Pusey v. Pusey, 728 P.2d 117 (August 18, 1986 Supreme Court of Utah))

The Pusey standard is over 37 years old as of the date this post is written, but is still followed in Utah. The standard is outmoded and do for a change. I believe that change is coming soon and that when that day comes, sexual discrimination against father in the child custody and parent time awards will suffer a fatal or near-fatal blow, but that day is not here yet. Even so, the seeds of Pusey’s destruction are found in the decision itself:

“[T]he provisions of article IV, section 1 of the Utah Constitution and of the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution would preclude us from relying on gender as a determining factor.”

The primary caregiver standard is (as many of you have already surmised), in many respects, just another disguise for bias in favor of mothers and against fathers.

I would like to say that I do not understand why courts in Utah continue to overlook the obvious fact that most of these so-called primary caregiver parents’ status depends upon the other parent being the sole or primary breadwinner. Otherwise stated, the reason mom can stay home with the kids is because dad is the one working to put that roof over their heads and providing all of the other necessities of life without the mother having to work outside the home herself. And so the courts have these kinds of fathers on the heads, ostensibly thank them for their sacrifices and for being upstanding, responsible men, then turn around and hand over sole or primary custody of the children to the mother nonetheless.

o   The problem with this thinking is that divorce fundamentally changes family dynamics. The primary caregiver analysis often fails to acknowledge that the physical primary caregiver status will rarely remain static post-divorce.

She (or he, in rare instances) who was the primary caregiver when the family all resided under the same roof will rarely remain able to be a stay-at-home parent post-divorce. That stay-at-home parent may find herself having to work outside the home to provide financially both for herself and for the children.

Likewise, fathers who used to come home to their children every day but who now realize they will be lucky if they get to see their kids every other day, will often make sacrifices so that they can spend as much time caring for their kids as possible when they are not at work. Courts, however, largely act as though this fact of life isn’t real. Or they may ostensibly acknowledge the fact in their custody and parent time decisions, custody and parent time awards themselves– mom still ends up with sole or primary custody, and dad ends up with every other weekend, alternating holidays, and a few weeks in the summer.

In Utah, the law is:

“Determining which factors the court must address in a given case, and to what degree, presents a tricky task,” and that “courts are not required to render a global accounting of all evidence presented or to discuss all aspects of a case that might support a contrary ruling.” See Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21, 509 P.3d 806

But “where significant evidence concerning a particular factor is presented to the district court,” especially where that factor is a critically important one, “findings that omit all discussion of that evidence” and of that factor “must be deemed inadequate.” Id.

(Twitchell v. Twitchell, 2022 UT App 49, ¶ 21, 509 P.3d 806)

But it doesn’t take a genius to find that courts can, if they so desire, overlook pretty much whatever evidence they want (to get to the ruling they want) by simply deeming/dismissing/discounting such evidence as “insignificant”.

So what can (or even must) fathers do to ensure that they (and their children’s relationships with them) are simply treated fairly and impartially in the child custody and parent-time awards? An exhaustive list of pointers could run into the hundreds, but here are the most important, in my estimation (again, in no particular order):

  1. Approach your case like a black man would back in the 1960s who was a defendant in a criminal case: to win, he had to prove his innocence, and he had do it with 10 times more evidence than a white defendant needed. Fathers need to prove their parental fitness. Rarely will a court presume fitness of a father (they presume a mother’s fitness all the time). Generally, fathers must have far more and far better evidence of their fitness compared to what the courts require of mothers. Otherwise stated, you need so much evidence, and so much high-quality evidence, that even the most biased/cynical judge cannot deny you without looking inept or corrupt.
  2. Prove that you satisfy every custody factor the court must consider. In Utah, those factors are found here:

Utah Code § 30-3-10.  Custody of a child—Custody factors.

Utah Code § 30-3-10.2.  Joint custody order—Factors for court determination—Public assistance.

30-3-32.  Parent-time—Definitions—Considerations for parent-time — Relocation.

Utah Code § 30-3-34.  Parent-time — Best interests — Rebuttable presumption.

Utah Code § 30-3-35.1.  Optional schedule for parent-time for a child five to 18 years old.

30-3-35.2.  Equal parent-time schedule.

  1. Document everything you possibly can to prove you are a fit parent who can and should exercise at least equal custody of your children (do not seek sole custody or primary custody out of spite—that is wrong).
  2. Do everything you reasonably, possibly can to show you are a fit parent in every way.
  3. If you and your wife are separated, make sure you live as close to your wife as you can, so that the children are in the same neighborhood near their same friends and familiar favorite places, same school district where the children attend school, and can attend the same church they have been historically attending, so that the court doesn’t say, “Dad, you live too far away to make awarding you equal custody good for the children.” Do you see why?
  4. If you live too far away from your kids, they will end up presenting spending any time with you, resent the travel back and forth between their parents’ homes, they won’t have any friends in your neighborhood, they will be too far away from school and extracurricular and church activities, and you risk them telling you that spending time with you is more trouble than it’s worth.
  5. Get your hands on all the latest rigorous research showing that children, whether boys or girls, fare better in an equal custody arrangement. You may even need to retain the services of an expert witness to testify to these things. If you simply dump scholarly articles on the court, they will likely not be admissible without an expert witness to verify that they are legitimate and valid.
  6.       Live a life beyond reproach, and document it in painstaking detail.
  7. You want to do everything to prove this beyond any reasonable doubt: “Your Honor, if what I have set up by way of where I live and what my work schedule is and how much time I can spend providing personal care and attention for the children doesn’t qualify me in every meaningful way to exercise equal physical custody of our children, then there is no other realistic situation that can.”
  8. Ensure that the court makes findings that you meet every factor (ensure that the court makes findings on every factor and points to the evidence supporting each and every finding).
  9. Don’t merely prove you are a good parent. To the extent you can, also DISPROVE all the claims that you are not a good parent.
  10. Be careful about admitting your wife is a good and fit parent if she’s claiming you are a bad and unfit parent.
  11. No, I’m not advising you to lie about your wife’s parental fitness, I’m warning you that I’ve seen courts make findings like this far too often: “Dad admits that Mom is a good parent, but Mom claims Dad is a bad parent, and so Mom wins the parental fitness argument.” It’s disgusting, but it happens.
  12. Don’t believe that “falling on your sword for your kids” will benefit you, or the kids for that matter. When you do that, you run the unnecessary risk of the court pulling a “no good deed goes unpunished” move like, “Dad said he’s willing to agree to less than equal custody to settle the case and put an end to the fighting; so be it.” That may have worked with Solomon, but it rarely works in court.
  13. Show that depriving a child of any care and love and companionship and tutelage that a parent is able and willing to give that child is inherently contrary to the best interest of the child. Show that “the best parent” is BOTH parents. Show that children have a right to loved and reared by both of their parents as much as possible.
  14. Blow the “primary caregiver” argument as meaning “woman” or even “the stay-at-home parent” to smithereens. It’s a pernicious lie. Read my other blog post for more on this and other bogus arguments against fathers and joint legal and physical custody of children: All Men Are Created Equal: A Proof for the Presumption of Joint Physical Custody – Divorce Utah

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

[1] I am nothing, if not frank. It is probably true that if you took a random sampling of parents and analyzed which of the two, among the mother and the father, is the more competent and attentive parent, a higher percentage of those parents would be mothers instead of fathers. But that doesn’t mean that every mother is presumptively a better parent than every father in a child custody dispute. It’s when courts indulge in such a presumption that they indulge in sexual discrimination, indulge in analytical laziness, and thus can (and often do) commit error.

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