The latest celebrity headlines are about the divorce between Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. She has filed for divorce in Los Angeles. This divorce is not about money; they are both highly successful in their own right. This is about the custody of their six children. The marriage is only two years old, but the relationship predates that by several years.
The headlines say that they have different parenting styles, with Pitt being stricter and Jolie being much more relaxed. She is allegedly complaining about his use of pot and possibly alcohol. In the divorce papers that have been filed, she is seeking full physical custody of the children. This probably means that she wants to be the primary parent and have most of the time with the children.
Most divorce and custody cases are settled quietly without going to court. The laws in most states, including California, are that custody is determined based upon the best interests of the minor children.
Here you have six children with two parents who are high-profile celebrities and travel around the world – Jolie with her United Nations work and films and Pitt with his film projects.
Determining Child Custody
In many states, we deal with legal custody, which means decision-making authority regarding the health, education, welfare, and other significant issues concerning the children. In most cases, there is some type of shared decision-making authority often known as joint legal custody. The key is that neither party is to make any major decision without having a dialogue with the other parent. If they cannot agree, then the courts will make the final decision. The key is that both parents must communicate and try to stay out of court!
This is an area that can be problematic, where parents cannot agree on anything. Examples include: whether the children will attend a private, public, or parochial school; what physician will provide health care; does a child need counseling for emotional issues; what will be the religious education and involvement of the child; and finally, a big problem in recent years has been whether or not the children should be inoculated.
Considering the Children’s Best Interests
Parents often fight about extracurricular activities, summer camps, and sporting events by way of other examples. The key is that once a divorce is final, parents must put their children’s best interests ahead of whatever anger or bitterness that they might have towards a former spouse!
With the Jolie-Pitt divorce, we have the added issue of possible abuse of weed and/or alcohol. In this area, the courts tend to say that unless it is a serious problem, it should not have a major impact upon custody or how much time each parent spends with the children. These issues will vary depending upon how liberal or conservative the typical court is where these issues are being raised in a divorce.
In Michigan, where I specialize in divorce and child custody matters, the courts tend to look at this as one of the many factors impacting the best interests of the children. The key is whether it is being done to excess and whether it is being done in front of the children. For example, if someone is constantly doing drugs or drinking in front of the children, this could be a significant factor resulting in the other parent having primary physical custody or limiting the amount of time that the parent with an alcohol or drug issue spends with the children. In some situations, when issues of drug or alcohol abuse are raised, the courts may order testing or bring in experts to deal with the severity of the problem.
Dealing with Different Parenting Styles
What about the issue of parenting styles and discipline of the children? In almost every divorce that I handle, the parents have different views on this issue. I constantly hear that one parent is too strict and the other is too lenient. The problem in a divorce is that children know this and will play one parent against the other to try to get what they want. This is true in an intact marriage and even more so in a divorce where each parent has a different belief and style regarding child rearing.
If we were exploring the issue of custody 15 or 20 years ago, the trend was that one parent, usually the mom, would have primary physical custody of the children. Today it is a different world, with a substantial number of divorces resulting in some sort of shared physical custody arrangement. This can be anywhere from a 50/50 split of parenting time to one where one parent has slightly more time but with each parent still having substantial amounts of time with the children. More and more, unless there is a good reason, the end result in a divorce is some type of shared custodial arrangement.
What Does This Mean for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s Divorce?
What does that mean for the Jolie-Pitt divorce? We can speculate that there are a lot of hurt feelings now and probably a lot of anger. No one wants to see a marriage fail. It is even harder when you are a celebrity with the press and public following every move that you make.
Ideally, this case will be settled with some type of shared parenting time arrangement where both parents spend a lot of time with their six children and are able to communicate consistently with the best interests of the children. This means that there will be a lot of negotiating, and hopefully not a lot of posturing. Each party will have to step back and not lose control of the reality that the key is not what Angelina or Brad wants but what is best for their children.
It will serve everyone if the divorce can be handled quickly and quietly, perhaps through mediation with the help of specialists regarding the needs of the children. Hopefully, huge egos will not get in the way of a parenting time plan that makes sense for the children.
Henry S. Gornbein is a partner with the law firm of Lippitt O’Keefe Gornbein PLLC in Birmingham, Michigan. His practice is exclusively devoted to family law. www.lippittokeefe.com