What Are My Chances of Gaining Full or Primary Custody of My Child as a Father?

First, you need ask a different question before you get to the question of a father’s chances of winning full or primary custody of children in divorce. The question should not be “what are my chances,” but instead, “What custody arrangement is best for our children?”

It is my view that as long as both parents are fit (not perfect, and not equally fit, but each parent meets minimal requirements of parental fitness), both parents love their children and want to be as involved as they can be with their children while the children are still minors, and both parents live within very close proximity to each other so that the children have the same friends and activities in the same neighborhood regardless of which parent they are with at a given time, then the parents should be awarded joint custody. Joint custody does not necessarily mean 50/50 custody, by the way. For example, in Utah, where I practice divorce and family law, joint physical custody* is defined in the Utah Code as “the child stays with each parent overnight for more than 30% of the year”; so that means that if Dad has the children in his custody 111 overnights out of 365, he’s considered a “joint physical custodian”.

With that stated, I’ll address your question: What are my chances of gaining full or primary custody of my child as a father? Generally speaking, in contemporary culture? Not great. Heck, not even good, but still better than it was a generation ago.

I’m a divorce lawyer. I’m 55 years old. When I was still a child (a teenager) in the 1980s, the way joint child custody for fathers was discussed would lead you to conclude that the authors had never even contemplated it before. One article I found treats the subject of a law passed in 1981 “authorizing joint custody of children after separation or divorce”. Really? Joint custody wasn’t even an option until 1981? And this paragraph is from article published in 1984:

A small revolution has begun in child custody law, and as yet its dimensions and ultimate direction are uncertain. Joint custody, the sharing of legal authority by divorced or separated parents over their children, is gaining acceptance as the best arrangement for most children when their parents divorce.

We’ve come a long way since then, but there is still an undeniable bias that takes two forms: 1) bias in favor of mothers (and thus, consequently against fathers) and 2) a specific bias against fathers in the child custody analysis.

Judges, whether they be men or women, generally (not all judges, but most still) believe that mothers are superior caregivers, that children are generally more closely bonded with their mother than with their fathers, and that men who say they want to exercise joint custody do so to a) gain leverage in divorce negotiations over issues that have little or nothing to do with child custody and/or b) reduce the amount of child support they pay. It’s pretty sexists thinking, and you’re rarely going to find a judge who’s dumb enough to express his/her views so starkly, but the bias is there. It doesn’t matter if you’re a male or female lawyer; we all see it.

If you’re clearly an absentee father, then your hope of being awarded joint custody rests largely on whether you are lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that awards joint custody more or less by default. I’ve heard that such jurisdictions exist, but I don’t live in one now.

But if you are a good, loving, fit father, what can you do to improve their chances of the court making a joint physical and legal custody award? In no particular order: 1) call out the bias (do it diplomatically, if possible). 2) gather and present ludicrously overwhelming evidence of your parental fitness. The bias against fathers results in mothers essentially being presumed fit parents and father being presumed unfit. It’s disgustingly unfair, but crying about it isn’t enough to overcome it. Fathers must work much, much harder and provide much, much more objectively verifiable evidence of parental fitness than do mothers. Prove beyond any reasonable doubt that you clearly meet all of the criteria in your jurisdiction for qualifying for a joint custody award. 3) Be prepared for a long, expensive, unfair fight. Don’t give up. You’ll want to, perhaps even several times over the course of the court case. 4) Do not fall for the “well, we’ll start with minimum visitation/parent-time and see about working our way up to joint” settlement offer scam—that’s usually structured (whether intentionally or not) to keep you at minimum time.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

*There are two kinds of child custody: physical and legal. Physical custody is the right to have the child live with the person awarded custody by the court (Black’s Law Dictionary 11th ed. 2019). Legal custody is the authority to make significant decisions on a child’s behalf, including decisions about education, religious training, and healthcare. (Id.) Make sure you seek both joint physical AND joint legal custody. And unless you don’t want equal (i.e., 50/50, no parent has more than the other) custody, make sure you specifically request an award of equal legal and physical custody. It’s not a given.

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