There are two types of child custody issues: physical and financial. Within each category falls several smaller issues that impact custody, the amount of time a parent spends with the child and how much child support both parents pay. The categories are not independent; decisions about physical custody affect financial ones, and vice versa.
Best Interests of the Child
Courts and agencies concerned with child custody issues place a child's welfare above other considerations. Commonly referred to as "the best interests of the child," this rule makes the child's health, safety and well-being the most important aspects of any custody case. Therefore, courts have the authority to create a custody arrangement based on what it feels the child needs, even if it means preventing a parent access to the child or not fulfilling the child's wishes.
Physical child custody issues concern the amount of time each parent spends with the child. In most states the default rule is that parents spend equal amounts of time with the child. This is referred to as "shared parenting." As long as each parent is entitled to 182 days with the child, the parents have a shared parenting arrangement, regardless of when or how they spend that time. The alternative to shared parenting is one parent having physical custody of and access to the child, which is commonly called "sole custody."
When establishing physical custody, courts analyze the child's and parents' health and lifestyle, the parents' homes and the presence of any other family members. Important issues include:
- Physical or mental abuse: The court grants custody to the parent who keeps the child safe. Allegations of abuse may result in the court requiring supervision during the accused parent's visits. Evidence of abuse usually induces courts to deny the abusive parent any interaction with the child and grant the other parent sole custody.
- Amenities of residences: When choosing the child's main residence, the court selects the one that provides the most stability. Considerations include attending school and participating in after-school activities.
- Location of residences: Parents living close together will likely share custody because of the ease of transporting the child to and from school and the other home.
- Physical or mental illness: An ill or injured child usually lives with the parent able to provide the necessary care. The other parent may be entitled to less time with the child because of the child's needs. An ill or injured parent may be unable to properly care for the child, resulting in the healthy parent receiving sole custody.
- Step-families: The court will not prevent the child from spending time with step-families, but will not reduce the amount of time the other parent spends with the child to accommodate them.
- Other parties: The court treats a parent's girl- or boyfriend as a stranger, and therefore may reduce the amount of time the parent spends with the child. Spending time with grandparents is usually not factored into custody arrangements.
- Child's age: Typically, children 14 years of age and older have a say in which parent they live with and how often they see the other parent, but the court does not have to abide by their wishes.
If there are no major threats to the child's safety and well-being, the parents share custody. If, however, the court identifies potential threats, it may create an unequal custody arrangement. Judges are usually required to provide reasons for deviating from shared parenting in their custody order. Changes in the circumstances of any of these issues may result in the court reviewing and revising an arrangement.
The amount of child support a parent pays depends on the cost of the child's schooling, medical care, housing, food, extracurricular activities and how much time the parent spends with the child. In a shared parenting agreement, unless one parent earns significantly less or has no income, parents split their child's expenses equally. In other arrangements, the amount of support a parent pays is equal to the amount of time he or she spends with the child. For example, a parent who spends only 20 percent of the year with the child only pays for 20 percent of the child's expenses. Exceptions are made when one parent's abuse prevents that person from seeing the child or when a parent chooses to not visit.
Your Child Custody Case
The child custody issues relevant to your case and their importance will vary, depending on your specific circumstances. As long as you have your child's best interests in mind the court will likely follow any suggestions you provide regarding custody.