Families Change
Teen Guide to Separation & Divorce

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Parental Rights and Responsibilities

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When your parents live together, they are both responsible for taking care of you. When your parents stop living together, this might change.

For example, your parents need to agree on where you will live or when you will spend time with each parent. If they can’t agree, then the court will ask a Mediator to help them sort it out.  If they still don’t agree, a court Magistrate or Judge may decide. The court can order “shared,” “divided,” or “primary” parental rights and responsibilities.

  • Shared parental rights means that your parents must make decisions about your welfare together.
  • Divided parental rights means that one parent is responsible for certain decisions (such as religious upbringing or health care issues) or has the final say if your parents can’t agree.  If decisions are split, the order will say which parent makes which decision.
  • Primary parental rights means that one parent has the right to make all decisions about your welfare without the other parent. But the other parent will still have the responsibility for child support.

Parental rights and responsibilities are divided into legal rights and responsibilities and physical rights and responsibilities. 

  • Physical rights and responsibilities are the right to make decisions about your day to day care.  Usually, but not always, if one parent has primary physical rights and responsibilities the child lives with that parent most of the time.
  • Legal rights and responsibilities are the right to make decisions about bigger issues in your life.  These are decisions that don’t come up every day, but are important.  For example, decisions over religion, travel, schooling, and non-emergency medical treatment are legal rights and responsibilities.

If one parent has primary rights and responsibilities, the other parent usually has “parent-child contact.”  Parent-child contact is the schedule for spending time with your parents. There are lots of different ways to arrange how you spend time with your other parent. It might be for a few hours a week, a few days a week, just weekends, during school vacations or another schedule that fits your family. If the parent lives far away, the plan can also include keeping in touch in other ways, like phone calls, e-mails, letters and online meetings. The times may be very specific—spelling out hours and days for visits—or very general and flexible.

Here are some things that a Judge will consider when making decisions about “parental rights and responsibilities:”

  • What will give you the fewest changes to deal with?
  • Are both of your parents healthy and responsible?
  • Can your parents communicate and make joint decisions without conflict?
  • What are your parents' plans for themselves and for you?
  • How close do you feel to each of your parents?
  • Do family and friends live near each of your parents?

Most of the time, the court will not want your parents to involve you in decisions about when you see each parent or how you are taken care of.  This is because the court doesn’t want you to be put in the middle of these decisions or to have to choose one parent over the other. 

Want to learn more about the law? VTLawHelp.org posts more detailed information about the legal aspects of Divorce, Separation, Custody, Visitation and Child Support

Q & A

What is the difference between separation and divorce?

When two people have been living together and they decide not to live together anymore, they are separated. However, when married people separate, their marriage has not yet ended. They have to get a divorce to legally end a marriage. Common-law couples don't have to get a divorce, because there is no marriage to end.

My parents never married. Do they have to go through the same process that married parents do when they split up?

Parents who chose to live together without getting married don't have to get a divorce, because there is no marriage to end. But they do need to decide what will happen to their children and how they will divide their property.

I have so many questions. How much can I ask my parents?

If there are things you need to know, ask. You have a right to ask questions about what is going to happen and why.

What will my friends say when they find out?

Lots of teens worry about breaking the news to their friends. But separation and divorce are very common these days.

Good friends will be glad you've told them. You're still you, even though your family is changing.

Do I have to take sides, or choose one parent over the other?

No, you don't. You have the right to love and be loved by both parents.

If you are feeling pressured to take sides, and you feel you are caught in the middle of your parents' problems, tell them.