Men have made tremendous strides over the last two decades when it comes to trends in child custody and visitation. In the “old days”, women got custody the overwhelming majority of the time and men could expect to get visitation every other weekend. Sadly, the perception “on the street” is that this type of outcome still occurs in most cases – when the reality is quite different. Today, men (particularly those who are represented by experienced family law attorneys) are on equal footing with women when it comes to custody of their children.
One of the biggest shifts was the abolishment of the “tender years doctrine”, which was a presumption that mothers should automatically get custody of young children in their “tender years.” Studies have shown that through the 1980s, mothers receiving sole custody was still prevalent. One of the most thorough surveys of child custody outcomes, which looked at Wisconsin between 1996 and 2007, found that the percentage of divorce cases in which the mother got sole custody dropped from 60.4 to 45.7 percent, while the percentage of equal shared custody cases, in just that one decade, doubled from 15.8 to 30.5.
In recent years, many states have seen a movement toward an assumption of joint custody, and one recent study showed that people are generally in favor of joint custody – but they still mistakenly believe that family courts are seriously slanted toward mothers. Interestingly, Berkeley law professor Mary Ann Mason tracked the changing priorities of family courts over three decades and found that the biggest recent change is the courts' preference for the “friendly parent” – the one who can get along with the other parent – with a parent who interfere with the other parent's involvement being penalized more often by the courts.