A non-custodial parent has the right to “reasonable and meaningful access” to their child or children. To the extent that the parties can agree to what is a fair and balanced parenting schedule that give the non-custodial parent and child reasonable and meaningful time with each other, a court will not second guess their agreement. Likewise, the custodial parent will not be allowed to dictate the non-custodial parent’s parenting time.
With this in mind, it is worth mentioning that most every custody agreement or order will include the magic words of “and such other and further time as the parties mutually agree.” In plain English, this means that if the parties are cooperating with scheduling of parenting time for the benefit of their children, the existing agreement or order will not preclude them from cooperating. This allows parents to adjust the parenting schedule to accommodate the many curves that life and children throw at them, such as illnesses, emergencies and inclement weather.
There should be a default schedule for parenting time. Even if parents can work out a schedule as they go, but children do much better with a regular schedule. Having a set schedule allows children and parents to plan their time and know what to expect. Children’s schools have a set schedule and parent’s jobs usually will have a set work schedule. Accordingly, parenting time also should have a regular schedule.
For the parenting schedule to give the non-custodial parent “reasonable and meaningful access” their parenting time should be frequent and regular. But exactly what is “reasonable and meaningful access” will depend of the particular facts of each case. These facts include the age of the child or children, the geographic proximity of the parties’ respective residences, school schedules, work schedules, extra-curricular activities and a number of other lesser considerations.
The geographic proximity of the parties’ respective residences probably is the most significant of the factors to consider in setting a parenting schedule. If the parties live relatively close to each other, and especially in the same school district, they may have a lot of flexibility with a schedule and the non-custodial parent may be able to have frequent periods of parenting time.
If the parties live a significant distance apart, this may limit the options with a parenting schedule, but it in no way means that the non-custodial parent should play a diminished role in parenting. In measuring distance, it is not the miles that count. It is the time. In some suburban and rural communities parties may live ten or twenty miles apart and be able to make a round trip between their homes in a relatively brief period of time. The traffic in urban areas and in many dense suburban areas can make a trip of just a few miles take a half-hour or more.
Time is significant because it will determine how much time the child will spend being transported between parents. This is why when the parties live in the same school district many possibilities exist to take advantage of school transportation to and from each parent’s house and use school as a transition time.
There are no hard and fast rules as to how close is close enough and how far is too far. Generally in upstate courts, parents living half-an-hour apart or less will not pose a problem with more frequent periods of parenting time. Where parents live more than half-an-hour apart, this may pose some issues with more frequent periods, but may be offset by longer periods so as to yield the same net amount of parenting time.
A good example is where parents live relatively close to each other the non-custodial parent might have parenting time every other weekend from Friday evening until Sunday evening plus a dinner visit every Tuesday and Thursday evening. If these same parents lived about an hour apart, then the non-custodial parent might only have a dinner visit once a week, such as every Wednesday, but their weekends might be lengthened to run overnight Sunday with the non-custodial parenting driving the child to school on Monday morning.
In reality, non-custodial parents who live further from the custodial parent tend to have less time with their children. This is the result of a few things. The first of which is logistics. The more time in the car means less time to spend parenting and the fewer blocks of parenting time that can be fit into a week. In some cases it just is that the non-custodial parent does not want to be that involved in the life of their child. But where a non-custodial parent wants to be part of their child’s life, reasonable and meaningful access gives them a lot of options, and geography should not be an insurmountable barrier.