Child Custody

What Is “Parental Responsibility” and “Time Sharing”?

As you no doubt already know if you have a child over the age of ten, language, and the meaning of individual words, change. Sometimes, as in the slang teenagers use, the change is a matter of fashion, without any real rhyme or reason to it. And sometimes the changes reflect a thoughtful shift about how we discuss certain ideas. That's the case with “parental responsibility” and “time-sharing.”

If you are new to co-parenting with a former spouse or partner, you may know those phrases better as “custody” and “visitation,” as they used to be called. In fact, you will still find the older terms used occasionally in this blog, because we know that people are looking for them. But the new terminology reflects how Florida looks at parenting after divorce—and that's a good thing for both parents and children.

Words Matter

The word “custody” can mean protective care and guardianship. But it can also imply control and possession. Children are not possessions to be taken ownership of by their parents, and they certainly shouldn't be—or feel like—prisoners of their parents' disputes.

The Florida legislature recognized that some of the language used to describe parents' relationships with their children after divorce didn't reflect that relationship as accurately as possible. Unfortunately, what we call things can influence what they become, so these words really matter.

For instance, when one parent is the “primary residential parent” and the other has “visitation,” it sounds (and feels) like one parent is the “real” parent and the other is just a “visitor” in their child's life.  Over time, depending on how contentious the relationship between the parents is, the “visiting” parent may feel squeezed out of their child's life. That's unfair to both parents, and to the child, too; children deserve both parents to be fully involved in their lives.

So the legislature decided to update the legal terms to reflect the reality of how parents and children do, and should, relate to one another. Rather than suggesting that parents are custodial and “control” their children, the new terms speak of parental responsibility. It is a matter of public policy that both parents should be responsible for caring for their children and meeting their needs.

The term “visitation” was also problematic, with its subtle implications of one parent being on the outside of the child's life and acting as a visitor, rather than an active participant in the child's life. Now, the preferred terminology is time-sharing, whether one party has a majority time-sharing or the parents have equal time-sharing. The shift in language removes the stigma of being a “visiting” parent.

How Florida Courts Think About Parental Responsibility and Time Sharing

As beneficial as it is to bring the legal terms we use into the 21st century, it is equally important to consider how we use the terms. Changing terminology is only a first step if the law does not keep pace with changes in language. How does Florida arrange parental responsibility and time-sharing?

As always, parents are free to make their own agreements about parental responsibility and time-sharing, and Florida courts will sign off on those agreements so long as they are found to be in the best interests of the children.

That said, Florida does have policy preferences as to how parents share responsibility for, and time with, their children. Courts prefer, when possible, for parents to share responsibility, including making decisions about how children will be educated and what medical treatment they will receive. Much less commonly, courts will award one parent sole parental responsibility when that appears to be best for the child or children.

The notion of time-sharing means that parents (or courts) need to work out the details of how and when parents and children will spend time together. These details are set forth in a parenting plan.  Ideally, a parenting plan will have enough specificity to avoid confusion over its terms, and enough flexibility that families can deal with unforeseen circumstances without needing to return to court.

It may be hard to use unfamiliar terms to refer to what you know as “custody” and “visitation,” but it is good news that the legislature and courts recognize the role of both parents in a child's life, whether the parents are together or not.

If you have questions about your divorce, we invite you to contact us to schedule a consultation with an experienced Orlando divorce lawyer. At Florida Divorce Law Group, we practice family law throughout Florida, and we have consultation offices in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. We also have Zoom video meetings available, and of course, phone consultations.   

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