Is separating siblings in a divorce ever a good idea? And how do courts rule on this? If you have two terrible teens that fight constantly, you and your spouse may be considering dividing the siblings to ease family tensions. Or perhaps you are blended family that has decided to dissolve – do the step kids just go back to their proverbial corners?
There is no bright line rule on how Washington courts handle this. First and foremost, when it comes to children, courts look at what “is in the best interests of the child.” Courts tend to find that keeping siblings together is in fact in the children’s best interests.
For courts to detour from that premise, there must be a compelling reason or exceptional circumstances. The burden is then on the parents, and perhaps the children themselves, to demonstrate to the court that separation is the better option based on actual substantive issues, rather than a temporal bout of sibling rivalry.
While some courts find no difference between full siblings, half siblings or step siblings, some courts are less concerned about the latter two groups. However, the court will weigh a variety of factors when determining just how traumatic severing that particular sibling relationship will be. Courts will consider:
• Length of the marriage;
• If the siblings are not full siblings, the length and extent of their relationship;
• The family dynamic;
• If the siblings have been separated before;
• The medical and mental health condition of the siblings;
• Any other relevant factors.
Is this enough? As Jill Elaine Hasday, author of Family Law Reimagined wrote, “courts and legislatures still do remarkably little to protect sibling ties. Divorce courts in every state sometimes split custody of siblings between parents. Some states have no presumption at all against split custody. Other states disfavor split custody, but still allow it. Similarly, some state court decisions rigorously oppose splitting siblings at divorce, while other decisions loosely interpret even supposedly strict presumptions against separation.”
Maybe courts haven’t focused enough on this issue but it has definitely been explored in the context of the foster care system where children are often separated. Child welfare professionals aim to preserve the sibling relationship while preventing the trauma and loss that occurs when siblings are not placed together in foster care or adoption. In that arena research has suggested that being biologically related doesn’t determine how close siblings feel to each other. Certainly something the courts should consider when viewing half and step-siblings.
If you and/or your spouse are considering splitting the kids then also be open to the prospect of visitation. Although visitation between parent and each child is a given, it is imperative to arrange visitation of the children with one another. Presenting this to the judge demonstrates your interest in preserving the sibling relationship.
Whether it’s siblings, spouses or other family members you need legal advice on, Pacific Northwest Family Law has an attorney to help. We have a roster of experienced Washington lawyers to choose from. Just call Pacific Northwest Family Law today for a consultation at 509-572-3700.