Children of divorce get to keep the house

Divorcing couples are adopting American-style custody arrangements under which children stay in the family home and parents move in and out on different days to look after them.

Research suggests that one in ten couples has an arrangement, with many more saying they wish they had known about it before they established two new homes. The set-up minimises the disruption for children who can stay in their own home, in familiar surroundings and with their belongings, knowing in advance which parent will be with them.

It also means that some couples do not have to sell the family home, as the parent spending the night away only needs a modest property.

The research was conducted among 750 divorced couples for Co-operative Legal Services. Tracey Moloney, head of private family law, said that when couples separated and had shared residency of their children, the marital home was normally sold and parents each bought or rented a new property.

“The children are expected to move between both properties depending on whether they are at mum’s or dad’s. What we’re starting to see is a new custody arrangement emerging where the parents do the moving,” she said.

Anna, 41, and her husband Peter decided when they separated last year that they would not move their son, six, from the family home to minimise the disruption. They modified the “bird’s-nest custody” model, so Anna usually sleeps in a converted outbuilding on the property, having spent the evening with her son. On the nights she stays over in the family home, she sleeps in the guest room.

“There was no master plan for this. It really started as a temporary measure. Peter had left his job to look after our son full time after I got a promotion,” she said. “We felt since I was around less I should be the one who stays away most. We talked a lot about it, and found this works for us. Neither of us has any strong desire to have another family or relationship and the most important thing is our son.

“It was tricky at first. We had to talk about it a lot and there are many ground rules. We share the communal spaces, for example, but do not go into one another’s bedrooms. Certainly neither of us would bring a new partner into it without a lot of discussion. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation, said that keeping children in one place and rotating the parents had some benefits, but if parents could make this complicated set of arrangements work it could leave children wondering why they separated in the first place.

“Our biggest advice to low-conflict parents is that your children may see your split very differently to you,” he said. “If you can make your relationship work after the spilt, why not before? So it’s worth making that extra effort to make it work.”