The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Split Custody

What is split custody?

Split custody is a custody arrangement for divorced or separated parents where the children in the divorced or separate family do not live with each other.  By definition, spit custody can only happen in families where there are siblings.  The siblings either do not live together at all, or their custody schedule is split so they are not living with each other all of the time.  They could have some overlapping overnights, but they are not always together.

Split custody is also sometimes referred to as rotating custody.

What is split custody like from a parent’s perspective?

From the parent's perspective, split custody might have some advantages and some disadvantages.

Parents are always with a child
Single-parenting is tough, and split custody often means that a parent always has some of the children.  This lack of "alone" time for a parent can lead to burnout.  To prevent this, parents might want to have a childcare provider help out some to allow themselves some time alone.  

Not being able to do things as a family
Split custody means the parents are not with all of the children at the same time.  If the children do not get along, split custody can help reduce friction.  It can also give parents valuable one-on-one time with the children, which might help enhance their relationship.

Is split custody different from joint custody.

Split custody is not the same as joint custody, although the parents may have joint custody of the children in a split custody arrangement.  Joint custody means that each parent has physical custody and legal custody of the children.  It means they take turns with the children and both are responsible for long-term decision-making on the children's behalves.

This can happen in split custody.  In other words, it is possible that in split custody, each parent is still responsible for providing care for each child, and each parent is also responsible for making decisions for each child.  But because it is split custody, the children are not having their custodial time or visitation with a parent at the same time that their sibling(s) are.  That is what makes it split custody.

Split custody requires that each parent has physical custody of at least one of their children, though that custody may be shared custody.  The custody schedule just might be such that the children are never in the same house at the same time as their siblings.

How is child support handled in a split custody arrangement?

Child support is dependent on several factors, including the state or jurisdiction that has control of the child custody case.  In most child support calculations, some of the factors that may influence who pays child support and how much are:

  • Who is the custodial parent?
  • How much custodial time does the custodial parent have with the children?
  • What expenses are shared between parents?
  • How much does each parent earn?

In split custody, neither parent is without at least one child at a given time.  Still, child support is possible with split custody.  One parent could have more income than the other.  The situation could also be such that one parent has sole physical custody of one of the children, while the other has visitation.  This could affect child support in a split custody arrangement.

Some states with split custody laws may offer a split custody calculator, which is a form (online or paper) that helps parents estimate the amount of child support that each parent is required to pay.  The form typically asks for parents to list their income and expenses, in order to calculate the support based on the state's split custody laws.

Not all states have a split custody calculator.  Not all child support calculators are intended to be used for split custody arrangements.

The actual amount due, however, will need to be determined by the court, and they are not binding until court ordered.  Child support is a complex matter, and it will depend heavily on the specifics of the custody arrangement that is created via the divorce decree.

When is split custody a good idea?

Generally, family courts do not like to award split custody.  Most courts prefer to keep siblings together, however there are circumstances that do warrant split custody. 

Siblings do not get along
Split custody is generally an option for divorced or separated families who have relationship issues with each other.  When siblings are combative, separating them might ease the conflict.  Ideally, if the conflict subsides, they may be able to improve their relationship as they grow older.

A drawback to split custody is that it doesn't address the reason for the conflict or insist on fixing it.

Children have drastically different interests
If the children are not interested in the same things, a traditional custody arrangement might mean that neither child is truly happy.  A split custody arrangement can help with that, but it should be coupled with some time where the children are together, too.  For example, the split custody schedule might be such so that it is rotating throughout the month, but one weekend a month the children are in the same home.

Mental health issues
Mental health issues with one child can create a situation where the mentally ill child might be a danger to the other children.  Having a split or rotating custody arrangement might be useful in keeping them separated so the parents can provide for all of the children.  Even if the mentally ill child is not a danger, the challenges associated with raising a child with mental health problems can be too overwhelming to also focus on the other children in a single-parent household.

When is split custody not advisable?

There are times when split custody is not advisable.  If split custody is used in certain situations, it can do more harm than good. The following are some circumstances where split custody is probably not beneficial:


Temporary problems
Confusing temporary conflict that often happens after a divorce with a permanent problem can lead to bad decisions.  Divorce is a process — not a snapshot event.  It is normal for everyone to have to through their own grieving process, including the children.  Especially the children. And during that process, children might be extremely angry, and take out their frustration on their siblings.  It may be beneficial to consider having a family therapist help to address and correct the issues that the children are going through if they are abusive toward one another.

Good parent, bad parent
In some separated families, one parent might be more strict than the other parent.  One might give a child much more freedom, and a teenage child might want to live with the less strict parent because it is easier.  This is a difficult situation because the parent that is trying to be more parental is often seen as the "bad guy" by the child.  Split custody does not help situations like this, and can actually lead to more problems.

Parents are not friends to their children.  The parent child relationship is much stronger than friendship, and trying to win over a child by failing to be parental can diminish the respect that a child has for that parent as a parent.

Anger toward a parent
If one parent did something that one of the children think caused the divorce, they may want to live with the parent that they feel was the victim.  This is a very difficult situation because the goal should be for the family unit to improve over time.  If the one child is wanting to stay away from the parent that they blame via a split custody arrangement, the issues that need to be be confronted might not be properly dealth with.  In fact, this can lead to parental alienation and a child estranged from one parent without fully understanding why the situation happened.  A family therapist can help with such situations.

Same-sex parent
Older children might feel more comfortable living with the parent that is of the same sex.  While this is common, it is not a good reason to have a split custody arrangement.  It is important for children to maintain a strong bond with both parents.

How can divorced or separated parents make split custody work?

The end goal of split custody should not be to permanently separate the children from one another.  It should be to relive conflict with the idea that the relationship between siblings can be improved over time.  That being the case, parents that are amicable toward one another can work to achieve that goal.

Arrange time where the children are together
Even if the children do not permanently live together, it may be possible to arrange for certain events where the children are all together at once.  Holiday or vacations might provide such opportunities.  It is important for these types of situations to not feel faked or forced.  If the children can get together and genuinely have a good time, there is a great opportunity to improve the relationships of each of the children with each other.

Consider virtual visitation
If the children remain connected via social media, text messaging,  email, or video conferencing, then their relationship may improve over time.  In today's connected world, it is easy for people to remain in contact.  Virtual visitation with parents and siblings may be a useful tool to consider for children to remain in each other's lives, even when they do not live with each other.


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