What is reasonable and liberal visitation? It is a time-sharing arrangement in which the specifics of child visitation are essentially left up to the parents to agree upon.
Many couples going through a divorce believe “reasonable and liberal visitation” is better than a strict schedule, but it can lead to problems in all but the most amicable divorces. If you are facing a child custody action, it is helpful to know the benefits and drawbacks of this option before visitation is formalized.
Who Determines Child Visitation
Whether you are going through a divorce or a child custody determination outside of a divorce proceeding, there are a few issues that will need to be resolved. Either you or your ex can agree on these issues, or the court can decide them for you. The primary issues to decide include:
Visitation or time-sharing
When it comes to visitation, states have adopted standard schedules such as every other weekend plus two weeks during the summer. Some couples adopt these standard schedules or use them as a starting point, and some abandon them to come up with something that works better for them. When the parents cannot agree, the court will hold a hearing to determine what is in the best interest of the child.
What is Considered Reasonable Visitation?
After a divorce, the children generally live with one parent or the other. The parent that the children lives with is called the custodial parent; the other is called the noncustodial parent. (Sometimes today the noncustodial parent is called the visiting parent.) In the interests of the children, the noncustodial parent is usually then granted the right to visitation with the children because courts believe children should have contact with both parents. The law calls this “reasonable” visitation.
“Reasonable” visitation generally means the parents of the child must come up with a schedule – a parenting plan, which is a schedule with days and times — for visitation. When the parents cooperate, this regime works better because it allows the parents to work around their respective schedules. In practice, however, the parent who has custodial rights generally has more power and influence over what is considered reasonable in terms of times and durations. The custodial parent has no legal duty to agree to any proposed visitation scheduled. However, an inflexible or malicious parent does not escape the notice of the judge who remembers his or her intransigence later on.
In most cases, the two former spouses will be able to work out a schedule together that they can both live with. Although the custodial parent has the power to decide what is or is not reasonable visitation, his or her decision making power is not absolute. For example, the custodial parent can refuse visitation in the middle of the night or while the other parent is intoxicated. However, the custodial parent cannot deny visitation just because he or she is upset with the noncustodial parent, or because the children do not want to visit with the other parent, or because the noncustodial parent is behind in support payments.
If a parent suspect that a loosely defined reasonable visitation regime won’t work, he or she should request on a fixed schedule and save time, and aggravation. If an existing reasonable visitation isn’t working out — for example, one parent is consistently late, skips scheduled visits, or doesn’t inform the other parent where he or she is planning on taking the children – a party can go back to court and ask that the arrangement be changed.
When parents cannot come to an agreement on their own, the judge makes one for them.
A common schedule may look something like this:
> Visitation with the non-custodial parent every other weekend;
> Visitation on either Easter and New Year’s, or alternatively, Thanksgiving and Christmas;
> Five continuous weeks with the non-custodial parent during the summer;
> Unlimited written and electronic communication with the non-custodial parent.
In order for a reasonable visitation schedule to work, parents must be communicate with each other in civil, sane, rational manner.
Reasonable Visitation versus Fixed Visitation
When you are involved in a Dissolution of Marriage proceeding and minor children are involved, child custody and visitation agreements or orders will need to be implemented. Here is an example of the difference between “reasonable visitation” and “fixed visitation”.
Reasonable Visitation: If the Court-Ordered visitation to the non-custodial parent is set forth as “reasonable visitation”, it is an open-ended visitation schedule with no specific periods of times, including holiday periods of time, being guaranteed to the non-custodial parent. Reasonable visitation should only be implemented between parents who prove to be flexible and exhibit good and reliable co-parenting habits between them. If one or both parents are, or will become, resistant to sharing the children by agreement, reasonable visitation is probably not a good option. Under reasonable visitation, the custodial parent maintains the final say in a visitation dispute. Flexibility is of the utmost importance in reasonable visitation orders. Each parent will be guaranteed to face certain circumstances that will cause them to want to deviate from an agreed-upon visitation schedule. If each parent can remember this and be willing to allow the other parent spur-of-the-moment visitation rights for special events such as weddings; opportunities to visit with relatives not often available with little prior notice; or special outings and events, just to name a few, then reasonable visitation will be successful. Your child(ren) will also appreciate each parent’s willingness to work together more than you will ever know. Make-up time to either parent can also be agreed upon when out-of-the-ordinary occurrences arise. However, if a disruption to the normal child-sharing schedule is likely to be met by resistance by the either parent, a Court hearing may become necessary to resolve any such disputes.
Fixed Visitation: If the Court-Ordered visitation sets forth specific days and times of day, which can include a Holiday visitation schedule, you have a “fixed visitation schedule”. A common example of a fixed visitation schedule would allow the non-custodial parent alternate weekends with the specific commencement and return dates incorporated into the order. Additionally, a mid-week visit lasting approximately four hours is often included so that the non-custodial parent can share a dinner, or other chosen event, with the child (ren) mid-week to ensure ongoing and frequent contact with the child (ren) between weekend visitation periods. A specific Holiday schedule can also be included in a fixed visitation order. This allows both parents and the children to be able to make holiday plans on an alternating-annual basis. Holiday schedules often prove to be of great assistance in ensuring that each parent will share equal time with the child (ren) during all holidays. Extended family members are also able to see and visit with the child (ren) when holiday events are able to be planned in advance.
Only you and the other parent know the best visitation plan that will work for you. When choosing the best option for you and your children, keep in mind such future possible actions as each parent entering into new relationships. If you choose a reasonable visitation option, make sure you believe that each parent will continue to work together, exclusively, to promote the best interests of their children absent undue influence from disinterested third parties. Upon a change of circumstances, however, any child custody and visitation orders entered can be modified until the child(ren) attain the age of 18.
When The “Reasonable” Approach Doesn’t Work
Flexible visitation rights can be tremendously helpful for busy parents who are still civil with one another, but these flexible arrangements don’t work for everybody. Many parents don’t get along after a divorce. In some cases, the parent with primary custody of a child may even try to keep his or her ex from ever seeing their child, simply out of spite.
Even parents who once co-parented amicably can have a falling out, but that doesn’t mean non-custodial parents have to give up their parental rights. If the custodial parent (referred to as the primary conservator in Utah) strays from what the two initially agreed to as what are reasonable visitation rights, it’s usually best for the non-custodial parent to seek legal advice on next steps. For example, if you end up in a situation where your ex stops cooperating and makes it difficult for you to see your child, you may need to seek a custody modification with a visitation schedule that is more clearly defined. As a parent in Utah, you typically do have a legal right to spend time with your child, and an experienced family law attorney can help you regain your parental rights.
What If Non-Custodial Parent Does Not Exercise Visitation?
While Utah courts will step in when a parent denies another parent court-ordered visitation, the courts cannot force a parent to spend time with his or her child. However, if the non-custodial parent routinely misses visitation, the parent with primary custody could petition the court to modify the visitation agreement but limiting visitation may do more harm than good.
Unfortunately, the child is the one who ends up suffering in these situations. Children often blame themselves when a parent promises to pick them up for visitation then doesn’t show up. We strongly encourage the primary parent NOT to disparage the no-show parent and seek guidance from a family counselor instead.
How Long Does It Take To Get Visitation Rights?
Establishing visitation rights can go much faster when a child custody suit is filed in conjunction with a divorce. Temporary orders—including visitation—are put in place pretty quickly once a divorce is filed. How soon you can finalize official custody and visitation arrangements depends on a variety of factors and how badly parents want to resolve their divorce and custody issues.
On the other hand, it may take longer for parents who never married to get visitation rights nailed down. Again, it all depends on the circumstances and how well the unmarried parents get along. An attorney experienced in child custody disputes can help you weigh your options.
Allowing Too Much Flexibility In Visitation Rights Can Be Problematic
Sometimes life and unforeseen circumstances force parents to alter schedules and end up caring for their children more or less than their possession schedule dictates. We saw this happen to many parents during the pandemic and strongly encourage parents to speak with an attorney about steps to take when drastic changes to work and life circumstances occur.
Due to COVID-19, many non-custodial parents ended up working from home (or were home due to job loss) and caring for and home schooling their kids who couldn’t go to school. In addition, many primary parents were forced to work long shifts on the front lines (doctors, nurses, first responders, etc.) and had to rely on non-custodial parents to keep children for extra hours or days.
These “temporary” schedule adjustments often lasted for several months. Some custodial parents worried they would lose custody, while many non-custodial parents were left wondering why they were still paying child support since they were sharing custody 50/50. Other parents hoped to be legally granted more possession time—since they had their kids more anyway—and called us about custody modifications.
Changes in circumstances may give some parents the grounds to request a modification, so it’s important to speak with a family law attorney about potential consequences and how to protect your visitation rights BEFORE these changes become “routine.”
However, it does NOT give a parent the right to stop paying child support. In fact, even getting a legal 50/50 custody arrangement in Utah doesn’t automatically mean you won’t have to pay child support—in most cases you will still have to pay something. Don’t assume anything—contact an attorney.
Implementing “reasonable and liberal visitation”
A reasonable and liberal visitation arrangement may come about by agreement or by order of the court. When the parenting plan specifies that visitation shall be reasonable and liberal, rather than stating specifically when the non-custodial parent may spend time with the child or children, it puts the responsibility on the parents to cooperate and continually agree on visits as they come up.
This solution makes the most sense when the parents are exceptional co-parents who communicate well and do not let any personal differences interfere with their parenting decisions. In the real world, even when parents have the best of intentions and consciously focus on their children’s best interests, the predictability of a predetermined schedule typically serves the family better.
Drawbacks Of A Liberal Visitation Arrangement
Most co-parenting relationships are not suited for the non-specific nature of a “reasonable and liberal visitation” situation. The flexibility that seems appealing at the beginning can lead to endless disagreements. If you and your ex do not have substantially similar ideas of how often visitation should take place and how long it should last, neither of you will have something separate, like a court-approved parenting plan that spells out whose idea controls in any specific situation. Even if you and your co-parent more or less agree, the custodial parent will have more power in the relationship. Since there are two opinions in every decision, there is no formal tiebreaker. The parent who has physical custody of the child, however, is an informal tiebreaker because he or she can, practically, veto the other parent’s wishes.
Perhaps the most concerning problem is that there is nothing to enforce. If one parent does not provide or return the children on time, the other parent cannot request police intervention because there is no violation of a specific time-sharing plan.
Modification Of Visitation
If you have a parenting plan that states that the non-custodial parent may exercise reasonable and liberal visitation and you run into conflicts with the other parent because of it, you may be best served by asking the court to change it. Revisions to visitation take place in a modification hearing when one or both parents allege that a change to the schedule is necessary due to a material change in circumstances. If you are going through an initial custody determination, it is helpful to be aware of the visitation options and to choose an experienced family law attorney to represent your interests. Effective representation in the early stages can save you the hassle and cost of requesting a modification later on.
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West Jordan, Utah
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