Words matter. The 2017 session of the Virginia General Assembly has made a small but important shift in Virginia’s custody language. In Virginia, the laws regarding how the courts determine custody of minor children as between their parents, or sometimes other custodians, is specified in Sections 20-124.2 and 16.1-278.15 of the Code of Virginia, 1950, as amended.

Historically we have referred to the parent with whom a child primarily resided as the parent with “custody,” and the time the child was with the other parent as being “visitation.” The new law passed by both houses and signed by the Governor to be effective on July 1, 2017, added the following sentence to both Sections 20-124.2 and 16.1-278.15:  “In any case or proceeding involving the custody or visitation of a child, as to a parent, the court may, in its discretion, use the phrase “parenting time” to be synonymous with the term “visitation.”

The newly included sentence changes none of the statutory rights or obligations of parents.  But the outdated idea that a parent “visits” with a child is not the reality of today’s parent-child relationship. The reasoning behind the legislation is that using the words “parenting time” instead of the word “visitation” better describes the value of both parents in the upbringing of the child and emphasizes to both the child and to the parents the importance of the time each parent spends with a child.

It is not unusual for our terminology to change through the years and necessitate updates to state laws. The use of the phrase “spousal support” for “alimony” is an example. Not defining a person by their condition and using what is known as person-first terminology is another example. In the mid‐1990s there was a shift in thought in the field of mental health, and the term “person with a mental illness” replaced a “mentally ill person,” and now it is proper to say “person with a disability” instead of “handicapped.”  Creating this new co-parenting responsibility nomenclature follows the national movement in many states including the District of Columbia, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Arizona, North Dakota, Michigan, Utah, Colorado, Ohio, Florida (uses words “time-sharing” in lieu of “custody”, “visitation” or like words) Washington, Oregon, and others. Studies in these states have shown the use of the less antagonizing words “parenting time” or like phrases such as “parenting responsibilities” creates stronger co‐parenting relationships between parents who are living in separate households.

This follows a trend in Virginia Courts to provide families in transition with education and tools needed to create an environment for the child that will effectively ensure success for the child. Under Virginia Code Sections 16.1-278.15 and 20-103, if child custody, parenting time, or child support is contested the parents are obligated to attend an educational seminar to learn about the effects of separation or divorce on children, parenting responsibilities, options for conflict resolution and meeting financial responsibilities. The cost of the program is on a sliding scale, but will not exceed $50, and generally will last four hours.

Additionally, courts may require a mediation orientation session, and offer low-cost and sometimes free mediation. Mediation is a process in which a mediator facilitates open discussions between the parties and assists them in reaching a mutually agreeable resolution to their dispute. The mediator is trained and neutral to the mediation discussion. In Virginia, the mediation process is voluntary and confidential.

Visitation (parenting time) is almost always the single most contested issue for parents who do not live together as a unit. More parents return to court for child time or scheduling matters than anything else, which is why it’s critical to have the parenting schedule spelled out clearly and in detail. By having a clear, unambiguous schedule to refer to parents can avoid wasting large amounts of both time and money in the future.

Having a well-defined parenting schedule also provides the children with the stability of a consistent, predictable routine which is especially important for infants, toddlers, and younger children. Older children can usually cope with schedule changes more easily, but in turn, often have more complicated lives. Also, it ensures that the children will see each parent regularly, and often helps to reduce conflict between the parents which benefits everyone.

Julia S. Savage, Attorney at Law, is a partner with Walker Jones, PC with offices in Warrenton and Washington, Virginia.  With more than 30 years of legal experience, Ms. Savage focuses her practice on Family Law.  She is a Virginia Super Lawyer and has been recognized as one of the DC Metropolitan Area’s top divorce lawyers by Washingtonian Magazine for the past eight years.  The American Institute of Family Law Attorneys (AIOFLA) chose Ms. Savage as 2016 10 Best in Virginia for Client Satisfaction for the second consecutive year.  Ms. Savage can be reached at jsavage@walkerjoneslaw.com or 540.347.9223.