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Who Gets to Stay and Who Gets to Say? The Difference Between Residency and Custody in Divorce

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

A father playing with daughters enjoys shared residency and custody
Shared parenting time creates bonds that last a lifetime

When going through a divorce with children, you'll hear terms like "custody" and "residency." It's critical to understand what these terms mean.

Let's start with the term "residency." A child's residency corresponds to where he or she lives. It is not about who has authority over that child's education, medical care, or religious and cultural activities. Residency refers to which parent's home the child lives in on any given day. It is vital to emphasize that the parent with whom the child resides has power over the child's minor day-to-day decisions, such as what clothes to wear to school or what meals to feed the child.

Access is a term that’s been traditionally used for the non-residency parent. For example, If John and Patricia’s son, Max, lives primarily with Patricia, we would say that Max has residency with Patricia and that John has ‘access’ or visitation rights.

Custody, on the other hand, is about who makes the major decisions about a child’s education, their health and dental and any religious and cultural involvements they might have. Many parents share custody or have joint custody of their children, which means that they make the big decisions together or that one parent makes decisions in some main areas and the other parent does likewise in other areas.

The Federal Government of Canada has changed the official terminology that it used in the Divorce Act to no longer include the words ‘custody’ and ‘access’, but rather, to use ‘decision making responsibility’ and ‘parenting time’ instead. You can read about that here.

Shared Residency

Shared residency in divorce is a residency arrangement where both parents share the responsibility of raising their children, albeit in their separate homes. With this arrangement, the children spend equal time with both parents. This can be beneficial for children, as it allows them to maintain a close relationship with both parents and reduces the negative impact of divorce on their lives. To achieve this, parents must have open communication, good problem-solving skills, similar parenting styles, and an overall amicable disposition towards one another.

There can be several benefits to shared residency. First, the children have access to both parents and can maintain close relationships with them. This helps children feel more secure and loved, which can reduce their risk of developing emotional problems such as depression and anxiety.

Within the dependability of a healthy shared residency situation, children are also less likely to experience behavioral problems such as aggression and delinquency. This is because shared residency allows children to have consistent rules and routines in both households, which can help them feel more stable and secure.

Finally, parents are more likely to cooperate with each other and work together for the benefit of their children when they are committed to a shared residency situation. This is because shared residency requires parents to communicate and make decisions together about their children’s upbringing. Parents who want the best for their children will be open to developing better communication skills and learning how to work together effectively.

However, there are some downsides to shared residency that should be considered as well. Depending on their level of sensitivity or special needs, some children may experience stress due to frequent changes in their living arrangements. Extra care must be taken to ensure that they are not made to feel like they live out of a suitcase. Less frequent schedule changes may be better in some of these cases.

If parents have difficulty communicating with each other and making decisions about their children’s upbringing, shared residency can become a nightmare for both the parents and especially for the children. Even if the children are kept out of the disputes, they can still sense the tension. However, tension without something tangible to associate it with can cause a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance and may result in behavioral issues.

Additionally, some parents may have difficulty maintaining consistent rules and routines for their children. This can be especially stressful for the parent who wishes to maintain order in their own home. The help of a parenting coach or counselor may be suitable in these types of situations. Often, if the struggling parent can learn how to manage the situation and communicate age-appropriately with the children, stability may still be achievable.

Despite these challenges, shared residency can still be a good option for many families as it allows children to maintain close relationships with both parents and reduces the negative impact of divorce on their lives. Shared residency also allows each parent to get a much-needed break from parenting. This, in turn, will enable them to have more energy when with the children, potentially perform better in the workplace and have time to participate more fully in a new romantic relationship.

Primary Residency

Primary residency is when one parent has the children living with them most of the time, while the other parent has visitation or secondary residency. The pros and cons of having primary residency of the children in divorce may depend on your specific situation, but here are some general points to consider:

One of the advantages of having primary residency of the children is that you can provide stability and continuity for your children, especially if they can stay in the same home, school, and community. This can help them cope with the changes and difficulties that divorce brings.

Another benefit is that you can exert greater control and influence over your children's everyday activities, routines, and decisions. Your children will live primarily with one set of rules, values and expectations daily. This may provide more stability, especially if you and the children’s other parent do not see eye to eye on these things.

Finally, maintaining close and frequent contact with your children will allow you to consistently provide for their emotional and physical needs through bonding and helping them with everyday issues in life.

However, there are some drawbacks to having primary residency of the children in a divorce. One of them is that you may have to shoulder extra responsibility and stress when it comes to parenting your children, especially if you are a single parent or have limited assistance from family or friends. Working, parenting, household chores, and so on may require you to juggle various roles and tasks without much assistance or reprieve from the other parent.

Another downside is that you may have to deal with potential conflicts or disagreements with the other parent over visitation schedules, child support, schooling, health care, etc. You may be required to speak and collaborate with the other parent regularly, which can be challenging if your relationship is poor or antagonistic.

The Best Way Forward

Going through a divorce can be difficult, and figuring out the best custody and residency arrangements for your family can be pretty challenging. There are many factors to consider, such as your work schedule, communication with your former spouse, and the distance between your home and your children's school. While wanting equal time with your children is natural, it may not always be feasible. In an upcoming article, I will discuss different ways to make the most of your parenting time with your children, even if you have a limited schedule.

If you want to read more blog posts about residency considerations in divorce, check thee out:


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