Child Custody Arrangements: Their Characteristics and Outcomes

2004-FCY-3E

7. CONCLUSIONS

A variety of social and environmental factors, as well as the personal characteristics of parents, are associated with the type of custody arrangement established after separation or divorce, including family law legislation, family composition (such as the age and sex of the children), the socio-economic status of the family, and the amount of parental co-operation.  The effects of change in family law legislation on actual custody arrangements are uncertain, although there is evidence that the incidence of shared custody increases and sole maternal custody decreases after statutory changes that permit or encourage joint physical custody.  Family composition affects the type of custody arrangement, with boys more likely to be in shared and paternal custody situations.  Parents with more education and higher incomes are disproportionately more likely to have shared custody arrangements.  Parents who are able to co-operate and those who are more child-oriented may be more likely to select a shared rather than sole custody arrangement.  There is anecdotal evidence that some parents either seek or reject shared custody in order to increase or decrease their child support obligations, but no empirical evidence on this issue was located.

Compared to sole maternal custody, sole paternal and shared custody arrangements appear to be vulnerable to change over time.  These arrangements typically change to maternal custody with visitation by the father.  The reasons for change and the effects on the children are not well researched.  Since much of the movement to different living arrangements involves older children (teenagers), the children themselves may have requested the move. 

The literature is remarkably silent on the day-to-day logistics of different custody arrangements, such as scheduling, decision making, the sharing of child rearing tasks and expenditures. 

Some inferences on the costs associated with different custody arrangements can be made from an Australian survey of fathers who had frequent contact with their children.  As the number of overnight visits increased, so did the number of items purchased by the father.  The income of the fathers was not associated with the number of items purchased.  A second study from Australia concluded that the cost of raising a child who spends 30 percent of the year with the non-custodial parent is from 46 to 59 percent higher than the cost of raising the child in an intact household, with the variation depending upon the standard of living of the parents.  Household infrastructure (such as a bedroom, furniture and toys) and transportation costs were the primary reasons for the higher cost.  There was little difference in the estimated costs for different frequencies of contact visits (i.e. 15, 20 or 30 percent of the year).  Unfortunately, the extent to which these data can be generalized to all non-resident parents, especially in Canada, is not yet known. 

The social science evidence on living arrangements after separation and divorce is relatively unequivocal on an important point: child outcomes in terms of social and psychological development do not differ by the type of custody arrangement as long as parental conflict is not high.  The following conclusions are preliminary and need to be replicated in future research. 

Several advantages of shared custody can be gleaned from the research literature.

  • Shared custody avoids the phenomenon of "Sunday dads." Fathers who have shared custody tend to spend more time with their children, and father involvement in parenting may be maximized in shared custody arrangements. 
  • Shared custody results in a more equal division of parenting time and effort.  In effect, shared custody gives each parent a respite from child rearing.  This may be especially important when—as is the case in most families—both parents work full time.
  • Parents' satisfaction may be higher in shared custody than in other arrangements.
  • Shared custody may permit greater opportunity for parents to resolve financial issues.  As well, each parent may have a greater understanding of the costs of child rearing. 

Several disadvantages of shared custody also emerge from the research literature:

  • Shared custody increases the overall costs of child rearing.  However, the cost difference between shared custody—the children spending 40 percent or more of time with each parent, as set out in the Federal Child Support Guidelines—and sole custody with frequent contact by the non-resident parent has not been the subject of Canadian research. 
  • Parents who are in conflict are less likely to be able to cope with the demands of shared custody (in particular, commentators urge against shared custody when there are indications of domestic violence).  Parents in shared custody arrangements are usually advised to establish schedules to give the children a sense of stability.  At the same time, parents must be prepared to discuss issues of child rearing, such as discipline and limit setting, in more detail than when one parent has physical custody.  Such co-operative parenting is less likely when there is continuing hostility between the former spouses.  When there is parental conflict that is obvious to the children, they can experience loyalty conflicts and feel "caught," which in turn can lead to emotional and behavioural problems.  There is no evidence that shared custody improves the relationship between the parents.
  • There are some indications that shared custody is less stable than most other arrangements after separation and divorce.  Changes in living arrangements may be disruptive to the children involved. 

In the future, research on custody arrangements should emphasize longitudinal designs using random samples of separating parents.  A prime example of this approach is the National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth conducted by Statistics Canada, which is providing valuable data on how parents and children adjust to separation and divorce.  Other research on "shared parenting" (i.e. both shared custody and sole custody with frequent contact between thechildren and the non-resident parent) should address questions such as the family characteristics that are associated with "successful" custody arrangements.

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