Print Edition: March 2013
Veena Gowda, Women’s Rights Lawyer
If divorce is inevitable, bitter battles cannot be the option to settle issues of child custody and access. Custody of a child, when parents divorce, only implies as to who the child will physically reside with. Both parents continue to be natural guardians.
The custodial parent will be the primary caretaker responsible for the emotional, medical and educational needs of the child and the non-custodial parent who does not lose the rights over the child will have the right of access.
Over the years, there is a shift from custody and access being the ‘right of a parent’ to being the ‘right of a child’. The non-negotiable principle on which custody is decided is the ‘best interest and welfare of the child’. Who will best serve the child’s emotional, educational, social and medical needs is the only criteria.
The earning capacity of the parent does not determine custody but the capacity to provide a safe and secure environment does. A non-earning mother will not be disqualified but the earning father will be asked to provide child support. While the mother is the preferred custodial parent when the child is of a tender age, once the child attains a discernible age, his/her wishes will be considered while deciding the issue of custody and access .
The belief that once a child attains a particular age, the father shall have uncontested right is misplaced and wrong.
This principle of best interest of the child ought to also apply in case of mutual divorce. Who will the child stay with, what will be the terms of access, how will the child’s living and educational costs be met?
Parties have larger negotiating space where more innovative terms can be evolved; like joint custody, a concept that does not exist in statutes but has evolved while negotiating divorce settlements. In this, both parents will have legal custody but one will have the physical custody and be the primary caretaker.
Access to the non-custodial parent could be weekly, fortnightly, daily or monthly. It could be just day access or overnight access with gradual increase including weekend and/or vacation, access on special days, etc. It could also be free access with no fixed schedule, but as per the parents and the child’s convenience, could include the non-custodial parent’s right to school events, etc.
One ought to remember that as a parent every ‘right’ you exercise ought to also have a corresponding ‘duty’ towards the child. As important as the right to custody or access is, so is the duty to provide for and maintain the child. The parties can agree to a one-time lump-sum amount or a staggered payment either at different stages of the child’s educational life or a monthly amount with incremental increase. Whatever it be, it ought to be sufficient for the day-to-day expenses of the child to maintain or improve the standard of living.
Property in the name of the child with either parent as the guardian can also be given as a lump sum with the rent from the property used for monthly maintenance expenses. Investments which could yield a larger return at a later point such as insurance and educational policies could also be factored in. Provisions for unforeseen situations such as medical emergency should also be considered.
A misgiving that the money set aside for the child could be misused by the custodial parent or that the non-custodial parent could abuse the terms of access alone should not prevent an amicable settlement.
The court is parens patriae, the ultimate guardian of the child and her/his property and so minor’s property/income is amply protected by law and terms of custody, access and child support can be altered in changed circumstances and/or in the interest of the child. It has to be ‘the best interest of the child’.
Women’s Rights Lawyer