SHARED CUSTODY‎ ‎‎ ‎‎ ‎‎ ‎

Shared Custody



First representative study on divorced parents and their children in Germany

By Prof. Dr. Roland Proksch, Nuremberg, 30/05/2003

New law on parents and children is effective:
Joint parental custody integrates children und parents, secures their maintenance, provides mothers with more opportunities to work. Sole parental custody excludes the disposed parent and puts the rights of the children to both parents and to access in jeopardy. Alarming facts and figures. Family courts and youth welfare offices called upon to act. Legislation required.

Separation and divorce are a major life event both for parents as well as for their children. And if no satisfactory settlement can be found after a divorce, in particular, in respect of access and maintenance, there is bound to be considerable argument. This places a burden on parents and children alike. Often throughout their lives.

The new law on parents and children, which has been in effect since 1998, has the effect of lessening conflict. It is said that it provides considerable relief from burdens for both parents and their children. It has been possible for the first time to provide scientific confirmation of the supposition, which, however, has been expressed to date only by specialists, that joint parental custody has the function of benefiting both parents and particularly their children. After four years of intensive research work, there are now available the results of the first extremely comprehensive and representative scientifically based study on the situation of divorced parents in Germany.


Four pressing topics for divorcing and divorced parents


Commissioned by the Federal Ministry for Justice, the Nuremberg law professor, Roland Proksch, interviewed all family judges at local and higher regional courts in Germany, all youth welfare offices as well as all lawyers who are members of the Family and Inheritance Law work group. More than 7,600 divorced parents were also asked as to how they, for example, have organized parental custody, how access rights have been managed or even whether they are satisfied with their maintenance payments and much more besides. “I was very surprised at the enormous response”, confessed Dr. Proksch. “After all, the parents voluntarily work through a 24-page questionnaire twice.” Detailed personal discussions with divorced parents and their 131 children of all ages completed the practical study.


How very pressing the topics of separation and divorce are was a vivid discovery that Dr. Proksch made both in personal discussions as well as in telephone conversations. “We received more than 1,500 calls alone on the two specially set up hotlines.” These were, however, originally intended merely to answer questions relating to the survey. In the course of the investigation, not a few of those affected called and described their situations in insistent terms. “Almost all divorced parents were even prepared to surrender their anonymity and gave us their telephone numbers, including their mobile numbers. Many parents couldn't even believe it: “At last, someone who's asking us, someone who's interested in our situation!”




Particularly when there are parental conflicts, joint custody is clearly better: it benefits the children


The results of the study are telling. The researcher was thus able to demonstrate that there is not a conflict of mothers against fathers, but conflicts between parents with whom their children live and those with whom their children do not live. It is extraordinarily striking that there are considerable conflicts in those cases of divorce in which one parent has obtained sole custody and the other has not. Dr. Proksch is convinced that the “disposal” of one parent in transferring sole custody to the other gives rise to considerable tensions: “Because if joint parental custody is obtained, there isn't a “loser”.


It is stated that obtaining joint parental custody has a high symbolic and psychological value, in particular for the parent who has been regularly disposed of earlier. Although the other parent intervenes in the child's education, this promotes, for want of better alternatives, satisfying discussion behaviour on the part of both parents. “The parents are thus required to do something”, notes Dr. Proksch. “This is also remarkable: the parents with joint custody regularly engage in this! And, in any event, this involves three quarters of all divorced parents.”


Dr. Proksch is able to demonstrate that these effects can be ascribed to joint custody. Not only “pacifist” parents have joint parental custody.


About one third of the interviewed parents with joint custody entered their divorce proceedings with an application for sole custody, 14% fighting for it until the court rejected their application. With hindsight, it is possible to ascertain positive effects even for these parents who thus had to accept joint parental custody “against their will”.


It is stated that joint parental custody requires father and mother to be responsible also after their divorce and that this benefits their children. It thus reduces oppressive, often highly emotional conflict and expensive court proceedings. It is also stated that joint parental custody promotes cooperation on the part of the parents in questions of a consensual post-marital settlement and of access which benefits the child.


Clear results: joint parental custody promotes the right of the child to access and its right to maintenance

Dr. Proksch reached astonishingly clear results for maintenance payments. “Every judge knows endless stories about unpaid maintenance. We were able to demonstrate that joint custody leads to reliable maintenance payments.” And he uses facts to demonstrate it: joint parental custody leads to almost 100 percent payment of maintenance, because 93.5 percent of the fathers with joint custody who are obliged to pay maintenance state that they pay child maintenance; this is confirmed in its turn by just under 87 percent of the mothers who are entitled to maintenance. Dr. Proksch emphasizes that “We found this really high level of agreement between the statements impressive.” This result is also supported by a study carried out by the Federal Ministry for the Family: there is a clear connection between joint custody and regular maintenance payments.


It is very striking that, considered in percentage terms, three times as many children of parents with joint custody live with their fathers (!) as children whose parents have sole custody. These children have regular visiting contact with their mothers. It appears that it is precisely these parents who take account of their children's needs, do without fixed visiting times and have found flexible and individual solutions for access and visits for the benefit of their children.


Sole custody: “disposing” of a parent, boycotting access in many cases, worse payment behaviour, increase in oppressive court cases


By contrast, sole parental custody creates “losers”. It squeezes out the “disposed of” parent. Logically, this means annoyance, deep injury and unnecessary trouble. In many cases, the parent with sole custody opposes the access right of the other parent. Entitlement to access is often and effectively torpedoed by the parent with sole custody. The longer such actions last, the lower are the chances of implementing access rights. The affected parents can “sit back and let time do its work”.


What is really shocking is that parents with sole custody admit that “they themselves no longer want contact with the other parent”. The needs of the child, whom both parents clearly love, are thus ignored. The courts appear to be powerless. These parents hardly need to fear judicial sanctions, such as compulsory execution or mediation. Although these measures are “theoretical options”, they can, however, only seldom be successfully implemented in practice. Events that sometimes lead to diplomatic complications on an international basis are nothing out of the ordinary in Germany! In addition, there is the long duration of the access proceedings serves the intentions of the parent who is boycotting access. Legislation is needed here.


“Sole custody thus increases the number of oppressive court cases,” notes Dr. Proksch, “and goes a long way to prevent satisfactory communication and cooperation on the part of the parents. Access rights to benefit the child are difficult and desired reliable maintenance payments are, unfortunately, the exception here.” There are facts to demonstrate this too: although about 88 percent of the fathers obliged to pay maintenance state that they paid child maintenance, only just under 67 percent of the mothers who are entitled to maintenance were able to confirm this.


Alarming figures: high number of terminations of contact in cases of sole custody


And Dr. Proksch states more alarming figures: “More than 40 percent of the mothers and fathers who do not have parental custody but have entitlement to visit have only seldom contact or no longer any contact at all with their children.” He says that sole custody largely leads to the parent who has right of access to his or her children being squeezed out. It is particularly bad that the other parent's contact with the children has been completely terminated after separation or divorce in the case of about one quarter of the parents with sole parental custody. Facts which run counter to the children's rights. Nor, it is clear, can this prevent the hearing of children, something which is an obligation in matters of divorce. Dr. Proksch insists on calling attention to a particular result of the study, warning: “The termination of contacts regularly increases year by year by almost 10 percent!”


Compatibility of profession and family after divorce


Dr. Proksch also investigated the experiences of parents with the youth welfare offices and children's lawyers, took an interest in further training for judges, inquired about the contacts of the affected children with their grandparents and asked the question: what is the actual situation as regards the compatibility of profession and family after divorce? Here too, there is an argument in favour of joint parental responsibility!


“We established that mothers with joint parental custody more often have employment than mothers with sole custody. For this reason, they have, of course, a higher income.” The logical result, quite clearly: mothers with joint parental custody thus assess their situation more positively than mothers with sole custody. However, the financial situation of many divorced parents with children who are minors is extremely difficult and burdensome, irrespective of the form of custody. “The absence of care facilities for children, the difficult situation on the labour market and the expectations of the working environment make it difficult for mothers and fathers to take up work.”


Results of personal interviews with 131 affected children of divorced parents


Dr. Proksch also carried out personal discussions with parents and their children. Although personal discussions with the children of divorced parents were able to illuminate only a small part of their reality after their parents' divorce, they confirmed the results of the study. It comes as a relief to children when both parents give them the feeling that contact is promoted and expressly desired by both parents. Arguments between parents place a burden on children because children are often unable to recognize what is or was the actual cause of the argument. It becomes even worse for children when they are then introduced into the argument or are even expected to take sides. Young persons in particular often feel that this issue is a “power game” on the part of their parents, leaving them then subject to conflicts of loyalty. They said that it was really bad for them when their parents' financial problems became involved. And brothers and sisters will often form a party of their own, quite possibly in opposition to both parents.


Demands for legislation: the enforcement of children's rights to both parents and to access


What is the conclusion of the study? “I can only make the urgent appeal to all family judges to have recourse to transferring sole parental custody to mothers or fathers only in cases of need.” In practice to date, sole custody was happily transferred to one parent when there was no longer any communication possible between the parents.

“Since parents must nevertheless agree on access regulation and must also communicate, this argument is not convincing.” Dr. Proksch recommends legislation that supports counselling offices and other provisions before appearances in court, such as mediation (out-of-court facility for settling conflicts), which should also enjoy preference in terms of fees charged. “It simply cannot be the case that state support is limited to legal aid. Out-of-court facilities for settling conflicts ought to be supported at least on a comparable basis – namely for the benefit of the children!”


It ought also to be considered as to how, in particular, children's rights to both parents and to access can be actually implemented in practice. It still seems to be the case that the parents' interests are primary to make their children the objects of mutual argument. This must be stopped. Legislation is needed here.


Reference: Proksch, Roland: Begleitforschung zur Umsetzung der Neuregelung des Kindschaftsrechts (Kindschaftsrechtsreformgesetzes vom 01. Juli 1998).
Studie im Auftrag des Bundesministeriums der Justiz (2002).
Bundesanzeiger Verlag, Köln.
ISBN: 428 / 3-89817-248-1