What Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know About Child Custody

I was speaking with a friend the other day that recently opened a local bakery. It took him fifteen months to actually open the doors after he started the process, and he has also seen his bank account shrink at a rapid pace over those fifteen months. The good news for my friend is that the bakery has been an overwhelming success; it continues to get busier as each day goes by. The bad news is that it will be a while before the business will truly be profitable and he can start to recover from the immense debt he incurred while trying to cover the overhead expenses to get the bakery open. The other bad news is that bakery has caused his marriage to hit the skids; he and his wife have separated and are in the throes of trying to reach a custody agreement for their three-year-old daughter.

Starting a business is hard. Whether your business is a technology startup running out of a business incubator, an international import/export company, or a local bakery, there will inevitably be speed bumps along the way. Sadly enough, a common casualty of starting your own business is the breakdown family relationships. There are numerous reasons entrepreneurs may experience the failure of their marriage. Suddenly all of your time and efforts are focused on getting your business off the ground and making it thrive. Also, for most entrepreneurs, all of your money is being directed to the business venture as well. Combine the fact that the entrepreneur-spouse has little quality time to spend at home, with the fact that the business requires much of the couple’s discretionary income and you have the recipe for a marriage disaster.

So what happens if there are kids involved? Entrepreneurs have different concerns with regard to custody than parents who work jobs with more traditional schedules. Does it matter that you haven’t spent much time with your child since starting the business venture? How can you work out a fair custody schedule if you have to travel for work often? Or if you are still having to devote most of your time to get the business off the ground? All of these questions are valid concerns we often hear from parents who are entrepreneurs. This article will cover custody related issues relevant to the entrepreneur lifestyle, in order to help you best protect your relationship with your children.

History Matters

One issue that most entrepreneurs run into with regard to custody, is the fact that in the course of trying to get the business up and running, they have unfortunately had less time to spend with their child. This was the case with my friend who recently opened the bakery. Initially all of his time was spent trying to solicit capital, then he was at the store location nearly every day during construction, and now that the bakery is finally open, he has to do all of the work himself. Eventually he will be able to employ people to work the counter and help with the baking, but until then he is at the bakery every day from open to close.

We have a client who is facing the same problem. In trying to get his startup venture (a mobile app) up and running, he has had to make frequent trips to San Francisco, which is where his business partner and several investors reside. All of this travel has resulted in him not being able to spend quality time with his two children.

Does the fact that you haven’t been able to spend much time with your kids recently matter in a custody battle?

It depends. In North Carolina there is a strong preference for a 50/50 custody schedule, allowing both parents to have substantially the same amount of time with the child.

However, when making a decision about custody, a judge will consider a myriad of factors. An important question a judge will consider prior to making a decision is: “Who is the primary caregiver?” In other words, which parent handles the majority of the parental responsibility? If it is clear that for a long time one parent has been responsible for getting the child up and ready for school, driving the child to school and extracurricular activities, shopping for the child, preparing meals, and doing the bedtime routine, a judge may chose to award that parent more custodial time. Judges are inclined to rule this way because they wish to not upset the child’s routine too drastically right away.

So, if you have been pouring all of your time and energy into your business venture and in return your spouse has become the primary caregiver of the child, there is a chance that you could end up with a less favorable custody schedule.

Schedule Must Be Workable

Another factor that a judge will consider is the amount of time a parent spends traveling. For an entrepreneur, travel can be a major part of the gig. Maybe you travel to visit angel investors or to raise capital. Maybe you travel to purchase inventory. Maybe you travel because your business venture is international in nature. If your job requires frequent travel, this can also hurt your chances at 50/50 custody.

A judge will not be inclined to issue an order on custody that includes a schedule that simply is not workable. For instance, if your business venture requires that you travel three weeks out of every month, a custody schedule that gives the entrepreneur parent visitation every other week simply is not workable – that parent would be physically unable to exercise the visitation while traveling.

Along the same lines, my friend who opened the bakery can’t physically handle a 50/50 custody arrangement either because he is in the bakery from sunup to sundown. This would be another consideration that would make a judge inclined to order a custodial schedule giving him less time than his former spouse.

The bottom line is that a judge is not going to force a 50/50 custody schedule if there is no way for one parent to keep the child 50 percent of the time.

Custody is Modifiable

The most important thing for an entrepreneur to keep in mind, is that a custody schedule is always modifiable. That means that if you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into your startup, and because of your absence the judge has ordered a custody schedule giving you minimal time with your child, it can be changed.

In order to modify an existing custody order you must simply show a substantial change in circumstances that (either adversely or beneficially) affect the child, and that a modification of the existing schedule would be in the best interest of the child.

An example of a change in circumstances worthy of warranting a modification to a custody order can be any of the following:

  • The child’s present or future well-being
  • The child’s relationship with the parents
  • The child’s wishes
  • The character, personality, or conduct off the parents
  • The environment in which the child is living or visits

There are a limitless number of scenarios that could occur allowing an entrepreneur to successfully file for a modification. Consider a set of facts where the breakdown of a marriage has caused the entrepreneur spouse to re-evaluate his or her priorities. That person may choose to take a step back from the business venture in order to spend more time with his child. Or another situation where the business is thriving enough that the entrepreneur can afford to hire employees and thus has more time available to spend with his child. Both of these sets of circumstances would warrant a substantial change that could beneficially affect the child.

Be a Visibly Good Parent

Here’s a bit of advice we share with all parents, not just our entrepreneur parents: be a visibly good parent. Make sure other people see you making an effort to spend quality time with your child. The most important witness in a custody hearing is an independent third party witness who can testify to your A+ parenting skills. Friends and family members’ testimony doesn’t carry much weight because they are biased, but a judge will give a lot of credibility to the testimony of an independent third party witness.

So who are these independent third party witnesses? Teachers, coaches, neighbors, camp counselors, etc. So, rather than just simply transporting your child to and from soccer practice – get there early, watch practice, chat with the other parents, and talk to the coach about your child’s progress. You never know if a parent or coach will end up making a huge difference in your custody case.

As we previously mentioned, custody is always modifiable. So, it is never too late to take this advice and start taking a visibly active role in your child’s activities. You can start heeding this advice at any point; as soon as you begin to feel your marriage getting a little rocky, or even after you already have a less than favorable order on custody. You can always seek a modification of your custody order as circumstances change.

Think Outside the Box

When it comes to custody schedules, most people are have heard of the “week-on/week-off” custody schedule and the schedule that permits one parent to have custody every other weekend. There is no rule that requires a parent to use either of these custody schedules, or any other schedule for that matter. If you settle your custody issues through a separation agreement, rather than letting a judge decide, you can get rather creative.

For instance, if your entrepreneurial responsibilities are going to keep you unreasonably busy during the month of July, work out a schedule where you don’t have much visitation in July but have much more in June or August. Or, if your business keeps you busy during most weekday evenings, try and arrange a schedule that allows you to pick up the children at your former spouse’s house in the mornings so you can treat the kids to breakfast and take them to school.

The good news is that although being an entrepreneur requires working more hours than most, many entrepreneurs are in control of their own schedules and can be more flexible when it comes to spending time with their children.

Don’t assume that you have to stick to one of the more common custody schedules – there is no law that sets forth potential custody schedules. Mold the schedule so that it fits your untraditional working hours.

Be Amicable With Your Ex

Our last bit of advice for entrepreneurs concerned about child custody issues is to be as cordial and amicable with your ex as possible. Granted, this advice can be easier said than done, but if it is possible to keep a good relationship with your former spouse, you can save yourself from many future custody-related headaches.

Co-parenting has other perks as well. If you and your former spouse are getting along, your child will feel much more secure and your good working relationship will set a great example for your child about how to overcome differences.

Most custody agreements and orders come with a disclaimer that the schedule set forth is the schedule to abide by “unless the parties agree otherwise.” So, if it is your week to have the kids according to your custody order, but you know you have travel plans to attend market for your import/export business, or you know you will be out of town meeting with potential investors for your tech startup, you can always reach an agreement with your ex regarding a more workable schedule for you. Maybe you decide to alternate weeks this time, or to make up your visitation time later in the month, regardless, you can always agree to deviate from the custody schedule.

The best way to go about maintaining an amicable relationship with your ex is to think of this relationship as a completely new and separate relationship from your marriage. This new relationship is different, consider treating it like a business relationship; make requests rather than demands, listen, and show restraint.

In sum, custody concerns are different for an entrepreneur than they are for a parent who works a traditional 9:00 – 5:00 schedule. Consider creative scheduling; find visitation time that doesn’t interfere with your work schedule and above all, remember that a custody order is always modifiable. As your circumstances change, so can your custody schedule.

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