Divorce and the Adopted Child

As if divorce isn’t hard enough, it can be even more complicated when you are trying to work out custody of an adopted child. Adoption often makes the situation emotionally more difficult for the child, and may make you concerned about what your rights are.

Legal Rights

If you and your spouse adopted your child together, or if one of you did a step-parent adoption, you may be wondering how the adoption impacts custody. Technically, it doesn’t. If you are both legal parents, you both have equal rights in the eyes of the court. If one of you is also a biological parent though, there’s a good chance the court will take that fact into consideration when making a decision. It’s unlikely a court would award custody to a step-dad who recently adopted the child over her bio mom, however it is possible because the decision is always made based on what is in the best interests of the child. If the bio mom is shown to be a poor parent, custody could certainly be given to the adoptive father.

Attachment Issues and Divorce

If your child is one of the many adopted children who has dealt with attachment issues, you may find divorce to be a very difficult time for him. He may have spent years coming to grips with the adoption itself and the loss of his biological family. Now he has to deal with another loss.

Having his family split up can cause an adopted child to regress and re-experience the feelings of loss and grief that were related to the adoption. The upset of the divorce may cause him to act out in ways you have not seen in years. Keep in mind that ALL children of divorce deal with anger, loss, sadness, and confusion. Your child’s reaction may be compounded by attachment issues, but his reaction is likely not outside normal boundaries.

Therapy is almost always a good idea for children who are going through a divorce, and this is even more the case for adopted children in a divorce. A good therapist can help your child work through his emotions and find coping strategies for the situations he experiences.

Reassuring Your Child

If you and your spouse can talk to your child together about the divorce, you will be able to set the tone for her. Tell her how much you both love her and explain that the divorce cannot change that. Talk about how you are going to work together and still be her parents. Yes, you will live in separate homes, but you will still always be a family. Make it very clear to her that the parent moving out is not deserting her or moving out of her life. Adopted children often carry a deep fear that their adoptive parents will one day give them up just as their biological parents did. Help her understand that that will never happen.

Advice for Bio Moms

The best thing you can do for your child is to work together cooperatively as parenting partners. It does not matter if you are the bio mom and your spouse adopted her – in your child’s eyes you are both her parents and she needs you both. It can be hard as the bio mom to make room in your child’s life after divorce for a man whom you see as having hurt you. You might think you and your child are just better off without him. However, when you agreed to the adoption, you made him your child’s parent forever. Divorce does not change that. You asked your child to accept him as a parent. To try to change that for your child now would be very confusing and unfair.

You have to put aside your personal feelings for the other parent and find a way to work together so that your child can have two parents who are active, cooperative, and relatively pleasant to each other when it counts.

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Teachable Lessons from Divorce

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You might have a number of flippant answers to the question “What lessons has divorce allowed you to teach your kids?”  “Men/women are creeps,” “Don’t get married,” or “Hire the most expensive attorney” might be off-the-cuff things that come to you if you’re trying to be funny, but the fact is divorce has probably provided a lot of teachable moments you can share with your kids.

  • You can love someone without being in love with them. If you have a reasonable relationship with your ex, this is an important message to share with your kids, who might find it confusing that you are able to be friendly together. It’s also an important distinction for kids to learn to make as they date and form relationships as adults.
  • Never give up on happiness. Many people find it is easy to sort of float along in an unhappy marriage until an event forces them to take action and then they realize they should have made a change a long time ago. It’s really important for your kids to know that they should create a life that brings them happiness and any situation they find themselves in that impairs happiness is something to consider changing. Don’t settle for less than you deserve is another way to put this.
  • The worst times always pass. This is a hard lesson for kids to learn because when they’re in the middle of something they see as just awful (a fight with a best friend, being grounded, or losing the championship) they often aren’t able to look past their momentary situation. Remind your kids that things always do get better and tomorrow is another day. Setbacks are never permanent.
  • You can survive almost anything that comes your way. Your divorce likely taught you resilience. It’s definitely an attribute that we gain as we age and work our way through life’s ups and downs, making it something tough for a kid to come by. However, simply telling your child that he really can get through even the hardest things will show him you have confidence in his inner strength and someday he’ll come to believe it too.
  • Life is all about change. Again, that’s hard to understand if you’re eight, or even sixteen, but helping your child see life as a series of changes and new experiences can help her be more open to the twists and turns she will face. It’s important to emphasize that each change you’ve faced has had up and down sides, but that you’ve tried to focus on the good aspects whenever possible.
  • Love is worth trying for. Some teens who have divorced parents act very jaded about relationships and profess that they don’t believe in love or marriage and there’s no point in trying. Even though your marriage ended, it’s important to tell your child you still believe in love and want him or her to find it someday.
  • Respect is the most important thing when dealing with other people. Even if you and your ex don’t always get along, if you’ve tried to be civil to each other, you’re showing your child that we owe respect to all the people we deal with, no matter what our disagreements or differences are.
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Pet Custody

photo credit: Graur Razvan Ionut

Custody of children is a hotly contested issue in many divorces, but many divorces also involve a heated debate about the custody of small furry children as well. Pets are like children to many people and the thought of no longer living with or seeing a beloved dog or cat (or other animal) can be very upsetting.

Understand the Law

If you’re in a situation where custody of your pet is an issue, the first thing you need to do is understand what the law is. In almost all states, pets are simply property. They have no special status under the law and are not viewed as children (although there is growing movement to have this changed). They are simply an object to be divided in the divorce. That being said, there are more and more cases popping up where judges do allow special testimony about the pet and make rulings that involve “visitation” with the pet.

How Pet Custody Is Decided

When a court takes the time to consider how to share time with a pet, the judge will be interested in the following factors:

  • Who cared for the pet (fed it, groomed it, walked it, and took it to the vet)
  • Who spent the most time with the pet
  • Testimony of the veterinarian as to who brought the pet in most often
  • Information about how well the pet was cared for
  • Facts about where the parties will live after the divorce and who is best equipped to care for the pet and provide a good environment

Another important factor involves whether there are children. When children are involved, the pet almost always will remain in the home with the children because of their attachment to the pet. Divorce itself is traumatic enough for a child, but to also have the family pet taken away from the primary residence is an additional blow no child needs to deal with.

Creating a Pet Parenting Plan

Because there’s no way to know how a court will react to your pet custody dispute (some courts will have no time for such an argument and will just treat the animal as personal property), if you and your ex can work out a plan to share time with the animal, you’ll be able to craft an arrangment that will work for both of you and allow everyone to continue to maintain a relationship with the animal. Some things to consider include:

  • Your schedules. Try to maximize human contact for the animal. Sitting in a crate alone is no fun.
  • Maintain a regular schedule so that everyone can easily adjust to it.
  • Expect accidents and upset. If your pet is going to stay with you at a new home, there will be an adjustment. Be patient.
  • Write out your plan so there can be no confusion.
  • Be flexible. If your pet is miserable, you’re going to have to make changes.

 

Pet Finances

Some couples work out an agreement (or ask the court to decide) about the pet’s expenses. Probably the biggest expense is vet bills, but grooming, food, dogwalkers, and training classes can also be quote costly. If you are sharing time with the pet, it makes sense to find a way to share expenses. Consider apportioning the expenses in the same way you share time. If you have a 50/50 time split, a 50/50 split for expenses makes sense. A 20/80 time split would indicate a 20/80 expense split.

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Biting Your Tongue

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Once you’re divorced or separated, it seems as if you should be free of your ex and able to live your life without his or her influence. However, if you are parents together, this is not a realistic expectation. You will be parents together for the rest of your lives and although you don’t have to live together or see each other often, you do have to find a way to function together as parents.

Spirit of Acceptance

Your child has two parents and although you are not in love with each other anymore, and in fact, may not even like each other, it’s best for your child if you work together as parents. No matter what kind of parenting arrangement you may have – shared custody, sole custody, or residential custody with visitation – you must still find a way to work together as a team.

As you’ve already learned, you cannot change who the other parent is, nor how he or she does things. This was true in your marriage and it remains true as you parent together. Part of parenting together is accepting who the other person is and learning to live with it. It may not be easy to put up with the things about the other parent that drive you crazy – lateness, neatness, snide comments, lack of attention to details, pickiness – whatever it is. But learning to do this is part of your job as a divorced parent.

Watch Your Words

As you and the other parent work through your journey as parenting partners, it’s likely that you will have clashes. Even if you had the most amicable divorce in the world, as you parent it is almost certain that resentments, jealousy, outrage, and other negative feelings will plague you at some point. It’s difficult to parent together when you rarely are together. You’re each growing into different people than you were when you were married.  As the years pass you may become more and more unfamiliar to each other.

One of the most important skills you will need to work effectively with the other parent is communication. Because you are not parenting in the same home, it is essential that you learn to communicate with each other about your child. Learning how and when to talk to each other is an important skill, but perhaps the most important skill is learning how to say nothing at all.

Silence is Golden

If you constantly criticize or complain to the other parent, your relationship will evolve into a negative one. Always pointing out what he or she is doing wrong just feeds the fire of resentment and anger. It is not your job to point out everything the other parent is doing wrong. That’s not your responsibility anymore. One of the best things you can do to create a supportive co-parenting environment is to try not to say anything negative. Instead focus on sharing information about your child, making plans that will benefit your child, and saying something nice once in a while.

If you are in a very difficult parenting relationship where every communication you have with each other seems to end in an argument, you need to cut back on your face to face communication. Try email, instant messenger, texting, or even sending notes back and forth.

Parent Together, But Apart

You and the other parent are part of a parenting team, but you’re each on the field at different times. Trying to set up some common boundaries and rules is helpful to everyone, but you can’t and shouldn’t try to control what is happening when the other parent is in charge. You have to let go and let the other parent do things his or her way – without commenting on it, criticizing or offering a better way to do it.

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Use Mediation for Custody Disputes

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If you are going through a divorce or are having a custody or visitation dispute, mediation is an option you should consider. When you go to court, a judge who doesn’t know you or your children makes decisions about how you’re all going to share your time. The outcomes are usually pretty scripted without a lot of creativity. Mediation puts the power back into the hands of the parents.

How Mediation Works

In mediation, the parents meet with a neutral mediator (who usually has background as a lawyer or therapist). The mediator helps the two parents find solutions that work for their lives, instead of making those decisions for them as a judge would do. The mediator encourages you to look at the situation from all angles, think of possible solutions, and compromise to reach decisions that work for your family. If you have teens, the mediator may encourage them to participate in a session and express their opinions about the parenting schedule.

Why Choose Mediation

In addition to the fact that mediation gives you and the other parent the power to create a parenting plan that meets your individual needs, it also has other benefits. Mediation is less expensive than hiring attorneys and is almost always faster than a trial. Mediation helps you not only today but in the future as well. Because you learn conflict resolution skills, mediation prepares you to solve future disagreements on your own, so that you aren’t always running back to court to fight over who should have your child for Christmas each year. A key benefit of mediation is the flexibility it gives you to create unique solutions that meet your individual family’s needs.

Perhaps the most important reason to choose mediation is because it benefits your children. Parents who mediate are less angry with each other. Although they may disagree, they are committed to working together to finding a plan that will work for the family. Because of this, they experience less conflict and expose their children to less fighting. Parents who mediate demonstrate to their children that they respect the other parent and support the relationship that parent has with the child. Mediation generates a parenting plan that has what is best for the children as the primary concern. Parents are able to work around the kids’ schedules and activities and maximize time with both parents. Mediation also teaches your children an important lesson – that it is better to work out your problems than to fight about them.

How to Find a Mediator

Do an online search to locate your state or city mediation association. They will have a list of mediators in your area. You can also call your state or local bar association and ask for information. Once you get a list, call a few and ask some preliminary questions, such as what their credentials are and if they just do mediation or practice in other areas. Always schedule a free consultation to get a feel for the person and his or her style. Even if you are currently in the middle of an ongoing court case, you can put a hold on the proceedings and go see a mediator to determine if you can work the conflict out yourselves.

How to Be Successful in Mediation

Enter into mediation with as open a mind as possible. Obviously, you have a clear idea of what is acceptable to you and what isn’t when it comes to custody, but there may be some solutions you have not considered. Speak up about what you think and how you envision resolving the conflict. Meet with an attorney for a consultation before you go into mediation so that you completely understand what your rights are under your state’s laws – this helps you understand how a court might rule in your situation. Be patient. Don’t expect everything to be resolved in the first session. It takes time to talk through all the issues and possible solutions.

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