Yours, Mine, and Ours: Complex Custody Arrangements

Creating a fair parenting plan for custody of the children of your marriage is of the utmost priority in your divorce. Today, many families include half-siblings and step-siblings. You and your spouse may have children together, and you each may have children from previous relationships. It is also important for your children to maintain the relationships they have developed with half-siblings and step-siblings even after the divorce

Sibling Rights

In New York state, all siblings (whether they are "full" or "half") have a legal right to seek visitation with each other. This means that if siblings are kept apart by their parents, they have the right to file a petition (on their own or through a parent) to have formal visitation with each other. Sibling visitation is determined based on what is in the best interests of the children. Courts can consider why and how they were separated, the benefits of having a relationship with each other n the children, and what the children themselves tell the court they want. 

Courts are also required to consider sibling relationships when creating parenting plans in a divorce or custody case. Step-siblings, however, have no legal right to a relationship with each other, and courts are not specifically required to take a step-sibling relationship into account when creating a parenting plan in a divorce or custody case (although they may do so). 

Parenting Plans for Complex Families

When the court considers your custody situation, it is important for the judge to fully understand all of the family members and family dynamics at play. Custody is determined based on what is in the best interest of your children and the best interests analysis can include just about everything that has an impact on your children.

It would be very unusual for the court to create a parenting plan that would separate full siblings, a la The Parent Trap where one parent gets custody of one child and the other parent gets custody of the other child. That only happens in very extreme circumstances and is not likely to be an option in your custody case.

When it comes to half-siblings, the court will want to know what the visitation schedule is for those children so that your parenting plan can maximize their time together. This can be very challenging to do, however, particularly if you and the other parent both have children from previous relationships. In this situation, you and your spouse likely have existing visitation schedules with those children. And it is very common that you and your spouse may have in the past had to adjust those schedules so that all of your children could be together in your home at the same time. Now that you and your spouse have separated, you live in different homes, and at least one of those visitation schedules will have to be adjusted if you want the children from your previous marriages to have time with the children from your current marriage. 

For example, you may have had a schedule in place where both your children from previous relationships and your spouse's children from prior relationships were at your shared home the first and third weekends of every month, spending time with their half-siblings and their step-siblings. Now that you are separating, if you keep that first and third-weekend schedule, your joint children cannot be in two places at once. They may spend the first and third weekends at your home and the second and fourth weekends at your spouse's house, thus missing the planned visitation with your spouse's children from prior relationships. 

You or your spouse may need to seek to modify the existing visitation schedule for those children from prior relationships. The court cannot make those changes since it has no jurisdiction over those separate cases. The judge will likely place the onus on you or your spouse to seek a modification to allow sibling contact. 

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the court will create a parenting plan based on the children’s best interests from your current marriage. Their relationships with their half-siblings, stepsiblings, and extended family members will be taken into account during the decision-making process. Still, it is up to you and your attorney to inform the court about the importance and closeness of those relationships.

Step-Sibling Conundrums

While the law is slowly changing when it comes to step-parent rights, in New York, step-parents do not have a guaranteed right to seek custody or visitation with their stepchildren. It is not impossible to achieve, but it is challenging to meet the legal standards that are in place even to be allowed to bring a case seeking visitation. It is also possible for a step-parent in some circumstances to be given guardianship of a stepchild, but this is generally with the permission of the legal parents. 

In general, it is unlikely that a court will grant you visitation rights with your stepchildren (or grant your spouse visitation rights with your children from a prior relationship). Your attorney will vehemently explain why you cannot just agree to give your spouse formal visitation time with your own child (this could then provide them with the standing to eventually seek custody of your child).

There are several ways to work around this. The first is to somehow agree with your spouse that the step-siblings should continue to have a relationship and informally agree to a plan that allows contact. Another way is to work around your spouse and instead form a relationship with the other parent of your stepchild and work out contact with that parent. 

In a perfect world, you and your spouse would be able to easily work out a parenting schedule that works for everyone involved. In the real world, you likely have difficulty communicating with your spouse, let alone creating an intricate schedule together. Thus, your attorney will be the one convincing the judge of your point of view. You want to work with someone who has a detailed understanding of New York custody laws and all of the circumstances that make your case unique. 


Dror Bikel

Dror Bikel co-founded Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield, New York’s best known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. A New York Superlawyer℠ and twice recognized (2020 and 2021) New York Divorce Trial Lawyer of the Year, Dror’s reputation as a fearsome advocate in difficult custody and divorce disputes has led him to deliver solid outcomes in some of New York’s most complex family law trials. Attorney Bikel is a frequent commentator on high profile divorces for national and international media outlets. His book The 1% Divorce - When Titans Clash was a 5-category Amazon bestseller.

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