Legal Review: The Surprising Relationship Between Equal Custody Arrangements and the Gender Pay Gap

The gender pay gap, where women earn less than men in the same job roles, is a complex issue involving race, education, type of job and other factors. While no single solution exists for resolving the gap, recent research suggests that help is found in an unlikely source — divorce.

How does divorce affect a woman’s earning potential? What type of custody arrangement benefits both the financial well-being of the parent plus the emotional well-being of the children? Here’s a closer look at how seemingly commonplace issues settled in court can leave a lasting impact on how much a woman earns in her career.

Many Custody Arrangements Rely on Outdated Stereotypes

Family courts treat the vast majority of divorcing couples in the same way. The mother is considered the main caregiver, while the father is assumed to be the main breadwinner. As a result, mom is awarded primary custody while dad is limited to visitation. The general idea is that the mother has less time to work because she’s busy raising the kids, so she’ll get more in child custody from the father.

Unfortunately, the arrangement rarely works as intended. Approximately 34 percent of single mothers receive child support. The average amount ordered given is $480 per month. While that is rarely enough as is, the average amount actually received is $287. For most mothers, that barely covers a week of groceries.

The crux of the problem is as follows: When a single mother is the primary caregiver, but she isn’t getting enough child support to meet her family’s needs, she’ll need to seek out employment. Unfortunately, because she’s raising her children on her own, she typically doesn’t have the time or opportunity to obtain a full-time, high-paying job.

A recent study from Wealthy Single Mothers suggests the solution is 50 percent shared custody. Of the 2,200 single mothers surveyed, women with a 50 percent split were 54 percent more likely to earn at least $100,000 annually compared to couples where the dad only has visitation, and the mom is the primary caregiver. Additionally, compared to moms who raise their children entirely on their own, meaning no visitation, moms with equal split custody have a 325 percent greater likelihood of earning $100,000 per year.

How Single Mothers Feel About Shared Custody Arrangements

For many women, 50-50 custody offers the potential of greatly increased earning power. However, it is an incredibly rare occurrence within the court system. Only 13 percent of women reported having split custody. Instead, over half of women (51 percent) said they had no support at all and had custody of their children 100 percent of the time. Among women with primary custody, 48 percent said they would prefer joint custody instead.

“State laws currently lag behind what most women want in terms of custody,” said Attorney Jeanette Soltys of Atlanta Divorce Law Group. “Only Arizona and Kentucky have some type of equal parenting law, although 15 states are currently considering similar bills.”

The Potential Downside of Split Custody

While 50-50 custody poses many benefits, it is not an appropriate solution for every divorcing couple. Many domestic violence organizations oppose laws that force split custody. For example, the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence identifies the decrease in domestic violence claims in Kentucky following the law’s passing as evidence it increases the difficulty of leaving abusive relationships.

However, opposition to these types of laws isn’t shared by every domestic violence prevention organization. Some proponents argue that sometimes parents will attempt to gain full custody solely as a bargaining chip during a divorce, which these types of laws can potentially help limit.

In addition to concerns related to domestic violence, another potential issue is earning inequality. Many women leave their careers, at least temporarily, after first having children. Any sustained absence from the workforce can impede that person’s ability to command a higher salary.

Final Thoughts

In an amicable divorce, split custody benefits all parties. Both parents have the opportunity to improve their earnings while also spending increased time with their children. Unfortunately, many courts seem stuck in a certain mode of thinking regarding which parent is capable of providing care.

While changes in state laws can help improve the current situation, possibly the most powerful solution involves changing public perception. As the idea that a divorced dad should care for his kids half the time becomes normalized in society, the courts will likely increase instances of awarding split custody.

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