Martin Lawrence, Usher Hammer Out Joint Custody Agreements
Actor Martin Lawrence has filed for divorce from his wife of less than two years, and he and Shamicka, his soon-to-be ex, intend to share joint custody of their daughters, ages 9 and 11. Elsewhere in the celebrity world, recording artist Usher is facing a less amicable custody battle with his ex-wife, Tameka Raymond, with whom he currently shares custody of their two children.
These two entertainers’ situations underscore the critical difference that cooperation, communication and trust can make in the custody agreement process. While Martin and Shamicka state through their publicist that they will work together to raise their children, Usher and Tameka have been ordered by a judge to work out their differences in mediation, or the court will step in to impose a temporary custody order.
Trending Toward Joint Custody
Years ago, the typical custody battle would conclude with sole custody being awarded to the mother. In this situation, the father would usually make child support payments and be granted limited visitation rights. But beginning in the 1980s, family law courts gradually shifted in favor of joint custody, also known as shared custody, in which parents usually share the responsibility of major family decisions and physical custody.
“More often, we’re seeing two parents who both have the time to have shared custody,” said Linda A. Kerns, a family law attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “Both are working, both have equal time at night and on the weekends, and in that situation it’s difficult for a judge to say that the child should be with one parent rather than the other.”
Kern’s analysis reflects the growing likelihood that both parents in a divorce will have comparable work responsibilities, but it also underscores the increasing trend in which family court judges view joint custody as the ideal arrangement. Judges are primarily concerned with whether custody arrangements are in the best interest of the children in question, and the prevailing wisdom is that children are best served when both parents are involved in their lives.
Illustrating this sentiment, Martin and Shamicka Lawrence said through their publicist that “out of love and respect for one another, we will continue to remain friends and raise our two beautiful daughters together.”
Talking it Out
Some joint custody cases are more contentious. In the case of Usher and Tameka Raymond, Tameka is lobbying for sole custody based on her allegations that Usher abuses drugs. Usher denies the allegations, and is asking for greater access to his children.
In an Atlanta courthouse, a judge ordered the former spouses back into private talks with their attorneys and an impartial mediator to arrive at a custody agreement that works for both parents. Kern says that such a move is very common, with most courts preferring for parents to arrive at their own agreement rather than have one imposed upon them.
“A judge won’t necessarily hear the parents out the first time around,” Kern said. “The courts will say, ‘Look, you’ll be a lot happier if you can come to an agreement on your own.’ The system is set up to encourage parties to reach their own agreements. It’s a last-ditch effort for a judge to have to make that decision for a child’s parents.”
Crafting an Agreement
Clear, civil communication between parties pursuing shared custody is crucial because custody agreements must address so many issues, often down to the smallest details. The best joint custody agreements outline a detailed schedule for physical custody, including instructions on how children will be transported between homes and where parents will meet to exchange custody. There should also be contingency plans for events like vacations, visits with extended family or the need for one parent to move to a new home or switch jobs.
“It’s important to set a schedule and establish good boundaries early on so that both parents can have functional households,” said Kern. “Put the details into your custody agreement at the outset so that you don’t have to go back to court to answer every little question.”
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Joint custody agreements can also establish guidelines for making important decisions in a child’s life, such as where they will go to school or church. They usually address a host of financial considerations including child support payments, the child’s medical insurance coverage and which parent can claim the child as a dependency exemption on their taxes.
Divorcing parents who want to share custody must also keep in mind the logistical demands of moving children between their households. If the parents live far apart or move frequently, joint physical custody may be an impractical or impossible arrangement. Joint custody agreements often stipulate that both parents must maintain residency within a certain geographical area to safeguard against this.
Joint custody agreements can always be revisited and modified through mediation after they’ve been approved by a judge, so long as the judge also approves the changes. But it’s essential to remember that any custody disputes that can’t be resolved in mediation will ultimately be decided by a judge, and a judge’s decision will be difficult to fight in court.