Fifty, thirty-five, or even twenty-five years ago, you’d have a difficult
time finding a stay-at-home father. Now, stay-at-home mothers –
those were easy to find. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, stay-at-home
mothers graced every block in the suburbs of America. It would be much
harder to find a mother who worked 40 hours a week at a regular job than
it would be to find a stay-at-home mom, because those were everywhere.
Fast-forward to today, and women in the workforce has changed dramatically.
Some say it’s because of feminism, while others say it’s because
of economic conditions. Either way, a huge percentage of the female population
works full-time in the United States.
According to the
U.S. Department of Labor, “Seventy percent of mothers with children under 18 participate
in the labor force, with over 75 percent employed full-time.” The
DOL continues, “Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent
of households with children under 18 today, compared with 11 percent in
1960.” What does this mean? It means millions of American children
are either being cared for by nannies, daycare providers, or stay-at-home dads.
Stay at Home Dads Are Still ‘New’
The concept of a stay-at-home dad has become increasingly popular and socially
acceptable in recent years, but that doesn’t mean society has completely
adapted to the new norm. In parts of the country, the concept of a stay-at-home
dad is still unchartered territory. In some ways, it’s been hard
for people to get their heads wrapped around the concept of the mother
being the breadwinner, while the dad stays home to raise the kids.
In our experience, a number of stay-at-home dads have questions about their
rights, mainly because they’re still thinking in terms of the past,
when mothers received preferential treatment in child custody cases.
Just twenty years ago, it was customary for the mother to get primary custody
of the kids after a divorce, and for the father to pay her child support
and spousal support, while maintaining the lifestyle established during
the marriage. So, can the stay-at-home dad expect the same treatment?
The answer to the question: Stay-at-home dads should not be treated any
differently than stay-at-home moms.
Child Custody Laws Are Gender Neutral
In the past,
child custody laws favored the mother. This was the case across the country, but as
more (and more) women have entered the workforce over the years, childrearing
has changed and society has adapted to these cultural changes. With so
many dual income households with the kids being cared for by grandparents,
in-home daycares, and childcares, why wouldn’t the father be given
equal treatment in child custody cases?
Then, there’s the stay-at-home dad. He could be caring for the children
from sunup to bedtime, or approximately twelve or fourteen hours a day
while his wife is at work. If he’s been doing this since his wife’s
six-week maternity leave was up, then by all means, he’s been the
children’s primary caregiver – there’s no questioning that.
Since young children grow deep attachments to their caregivers (Dads included),
it makes sense not to rip them away from their stay-at-home fathers, only
to give them to a mother who only sees them for a couple hours in the
evening Monday through Friday.
In all states, California included, the child custody, child support, and
spousal support laws are now drafted so they are gender neutral. In the
1990s, the “Tender Years” doctrine, which presumed mothers
should care for children under the age of 13 was in full swing, but today,
it’s a thing of the past. But, it would be folly to ignore the fact
that the “tender years mindset” has not entirely gone away.
A lot of people still think that way.
Best Interest of the Child Doctrine
Whenever the parents are fighting over child custody, meaning, whenever
they cannot agree on a child custody arrangement, the family courts use
what’s called the “best interests of the child doctrine.”
In this situation, the judge will carefully examine the facts of the case
and render a decision based on the children’s best interests, which
has nothing to do with the gender of the parents.
Family court judges have wide discretion when it comes to child custody
rulings; therefore, decisions are issued strictly on a case-by-case basis.
“Can a stay at home father get primary custody, child support, and
spousal support?” His chances are as good as a stay-at-home mother,
but it has to do with the children’s best interests and the facts
of the case.
Generally speaking, the courts strongly encourage situations where the
children get to have not one, but two active parents in their lives. Often,
this translates to a joint custody arrangement. If the children are young,
a stay-at-home father may have more parenting time with the children until
they reach school age, where the arrangement may become more equal, but
that is not guaranteed.
In particular, if money is an issue (the mom can’t afford to pay
much spousal support), and if the father is physically able, he may be
strongly encouraged by the judge to seek a full-time job himself. In that
case, the parents may end up with a nearly equal custody arrangement,
where they spend almost equal time with the children throughout the year
– it’s all fact specific.
Child support is rather cut and dry compared to child custody. Usually,
the parent who has the children for more overnights is the one to receive
child support. On the other hand,
spousal support is not automatic and is typically awarded based on the dependent spouse’s
need and the higher-earning spouse’s ability to pay it. Couples
usually negotiate spousal support based on the length of the marriage, the
property settlement, and who gets the children in the divorce.