Custody, Access and Child Support: Findings from The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth


Existence of a Court Order for Custody by Degree of Tension Between Separated Parents

Is there a relationship between having a custody order and the degree of tension parents reported over visiting rights and living arrangements? Figure 10 shows the distribution of children from broken families according to the degree of tension that parents reported regarding living arrangements and visiting rights, by type of parental separation and existence of a court order for custody.

Figure 10: Degree of Tension Created by the Question of Living Arrangements or Visiting Rights, According to Type of Parental Separation--NLSCY 1994-1995

Figure 10: Degree of Tension Created by the Question of Living Arrangements or Visiting Rights, According to Type of Parental Separation--NLSCY 1994-1995

[ Description ]

Regardless of the type of parental separation, parents who said they had a court order for custody were much more likely to also say that the issues of living arrangements and visiting rights were a source of tension than parents who did not have a court order. (Compare the black sections of the pie charts in the two panels of Figure 10). The largest difference in the level of tension reported was between common-law couples who had a court order for custody and those who did not (23 percent as opposed to 6 percent). This result might be interpreted to mean that common-law couples will not likely get a court order for custody unless there is some disagreement or tension surrounding the children's living arrangements, except perhaps in Quebec where common-law couples must obtain a separation judgment from the court to make their arrangements concerning custody and child support legal and enforceable.

There was only one question in the survey asking the responding parent about the level of tension surrounding living arrangements or visiting rights, and this is the only indicator in the NLSCY of the nature of the relationship between the parents during the separation process. Clearly, this information is not sufficient to allow an in-depth analysis of the circumstances that reduce or increase tension during the separation and divorce process. Nevertheless, it does appear that the courts may be receiving most of what might be referred to as the "difficult" cases, that is, those in which the parents have a harder time reaching agreement about parenting issues after separation.

A logistic regression was run to examine the impact of several variables on the likelihood of having a court order for custody (Table 5). The variables included were degree of tension over living arrangements and visiting rights; type of parental separation, duration of separation; and region of residence in Canada.

Table 5: Impact of Given Variables on the Probability That a Court Order for Custody Exists--NLSCY, Cycle 1, 1994-1995
(Logistic Regression Coefficients)

Level of tension between parents
Variables1 Coefficients2
No tension 1.000
Very little tension 1.559 ***
Some tension 3.188 ***
Great tension 5.105 ***

Type of parental separation
Variables Coefficients
Divorce 1.000
Marital separation 0.302 ***
Common-law separation 0.294 ***

Variables Coefficients
Quebec 1.000
Atlantic Provinces 0.678 *
Ontario 0.550***
Prairies 0.422 ***
British Columbia 0.483 ***

Time elapsed since separation
Variables Coefficients
Less than one year 1.000
1-2 years 1.480 **
3-4 years 2.466 ***
5 + years 2.539 ***
  • 1. The reference category is given in parentheses.
  • 2. Odd ratios. Coefficients significant at:
    • * = 0.05,
    • ** = 0.01,
    • *** = 0.001

The regression coefficients show that all variables included in the model are significantly linked to the probability of having a court order for custody, but the degree of tension is the most strongly related factor. When the type of parental separation, the region of residence and the time elapsed since separation are controlled, cases in which a great deal of tension was reported appear five times more likely to have a court order for custody than cases in which no tension was reported.

Since it is not clear what type of formal or informal arrangements existed in the broken families where there was no court order for custody and whether these arrangements were difficult to negotiate, it is difficult to interpret this finding. However, it does appear that most custodial arrangements are settled by the parents themselves and either negotiated between lawyers or mediated. The courts are rightly seen as an avenue of last resort for settling these issues.

Date modified: