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One of the most difficult challenges soon to be divorced or separated parents must face is establishing child custody and visitation arrangements. Local courts usually make their decisions based on the "child's best interests" when deciding child custody. One of the most popular Internet searches regarding family law is for child custody laws, with over 1,900 searches per month.

What Does the "Child's Best Interest" Mean?

Determining what is in the child's best interest depends upon many aspects, these include:

  • The child's or children's gender, age, physical and mental health
  • Fitness of each of the parents (both physical and mental)
  • Lifestyle and other social aspects of each parent's domicile and situation
  • Each parents ability provide to the necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter and medical care
  • Demonstrated emotional ties between the child and each parent
  • Stability of the living situation or environment
  • The willingness (and ability) of the parent to foster a healthy relationship between child and other parent
  • The child's preference if the child is over 12 - see Child's Wishes in a Custody Dispute for additional information.
  • Quality of the school district in a given locale

The Two Types of Custody Arrangements

(See also: Types of Child Custody)

  • Legal Custody - The right and responsibility to make decisions about the rearing of the child. This includes issues such as education, religion, medical care, and discipline.
  • Physical Custody - The right of a parent to have a child live with either parent. Courts will award legal and physical custody of a child to either one parent (sole custody) or both parents (joint custody).

Modification of Child Custody

Child custody and visitation agreements can be modified with the consent of both parents or by order of the Court. Anything aspect may be changed as long as it is consistent with the child's best interests. Typical reasons for modifying a child custody arrangement are:

  • A major change in circumstances- Anything substantial that upsets the stability of the child's life ( e.g. a parent's job loss or change, relocation, sickness, martial status) may justify modification.
  • Relocation (see Relocation and Child Custody) - Some states allow parents with physical custody to relocate no matter what distance is involved.
  • Change in lifestyle - Modification may also be justified if significant changes in a parent's lifestyle harm or threaten the child.

You may want to consider Child Custody Mediation as a means of resolving any outstanding issues. If money is an issue and you are seeking a modification of your agreement, you should consult a child support lawyer. Should your custody situation involve out of state residency see the articles Interstate Child Custody and Visitation and Relocation and Child Custody.

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