Child custody and child visitation are extremely important, but they are can also be highly complex. If you are seeking to establish formal custody and visitation agreements, there are two basic ways to do it:

  • By Agreement: In the best-case scenario, both parents will come to an agreement between them regarding custody and visitation so that the child can have time with both parents, and each parent’s schedule can accommodate their visitation.
    • Depending on your state, you may be required to meet with a court-appointed mediator in order to work out a custody arrangement. If you and the other parent are able to come to an agreement on custody and visitation on your own, the court is less likely to get involved in the custody matters.
  • By Court Order: If the parents aren’t able to reach an agreement, then the court will end up making the decision. Generally this means that there will be a hearing in court, where both parents will have an opportunity to present their cases and explain their situation.
    • However, because the court is not familiar with all the details and intricacies of the parents’ work, social, and commuting schedules, it is possible that the final decision from the court will result in a schedule that is less than ideal for either parent.

What is the “Child’s Best Interests” Standard?

When determining issues of child custody and child visitation, courts generally try to make the decision based on the “child’s best interests standard,” which is the gold standard in any family law situation that involves custody and visitation.

To determine what arrangement is in the child’s best interests, the court may consider several factors, including:

  • The child’s age, gender, and any mental or physical health issues;
  • Environmental conditions (like the quality of schools and the safety of the surrounding community);
  • Each parent’s ability to care for the child, both financially and emotionally;
  • Whether there are any siblings or other family members who will be involved;
  • The health and maturity of the parents; and
  • The degree of each parent’s willingness to encourage contact between the child and the other parent.

In some circumstances, the courts may also consider the child’s preference if they are of a certain age or maturity. Usually, in cases where the child is around age 12 or older, they are able to express a preference in which parent they would like to live with (which parent will have primary physical custody), and the court will take that into consideration.

What are the Different Types of Custody Arrangements?

There are different types of custody arrangements, each with their own nuances. It is important to work together if at all possible in order to select the custody arrangement that works best for everyone, especially the children. :

Types of Custody Arrangements: Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to the right and responsibility to make decisions regarding the child’s upbringing and welfare. Usually, this includes the responsibility to make decisions about matters like education, health care, discipline, and religious affiliation. Courts generally award the parents joint legal custody, meaning that both parents share the responsibilities to make these decisions on the child’s behalf.

Types of Custody Arrangements: Physical Custody

Physical custody refers to the physical location of the child — the right of the parent to have a child live with them. You are not necessarily required to have physical custody of the child in order to have legal custody (see above). Courts commonly order joint physical custody, but the actual time spent with each parent may vary. Often, for a variety of different reasons, it is not quite 50/50.

Types of Custody Arrangements: Sole Custody

Sole custody awards one parent with complete custody rights — both legal and physical — while the other parent may only have visitation rights.

Types of Custody Arrangements: Joint Custody

Joint custody is a fairly common arrangement in today’s court systems. In this instance, both parents are able to share physical and legal custody. It is most helpful in this case for both parents to work together to provide flexibility in schedules so that the child is able to spend as much time as possible with each parent.

Types of Custody Arrangements: Bird’s Nest Custody

This is a unique arrangement in which the child remains in one home, and the parents rotate in and out of the home, taking turns in caring for the child. This is different from other arrangements in which the child rotates between two homes, and has been said to offer a certain level of stability for the child that other options might not provide.

What are Visitation Rights?

When one parent has sole physical custody of the child, the other parent will have visitation rights (rights to spend time with the child). The details of visitation are usually set out in a visitation schedule.

A court order will detail the specific circumstances that must be followed in visitation. These circumstances include whether visitation will be supervised or unsupervised, or whether the parents will have visitation on alternating weekends so that each parent gets time to spend with the child.

How Do I Modify Child Custody or Visitation Arrangements?

You can modify or change child custody or visitation arrangements with the consent of both parents or by court order. Any part of the agreement can be changed, as long as the change is still in the best interests of the child.

Some reasons that may justify a change in child custody or visitation include:

  • Relocation: Depending on your state, parents with physical custody may be allowed to relocate, no matter the distance;
  • Change in Circumstances: Circumstances that would significantly change or disrupt the stability of the child’s life may justify a modification.
    • For example, if the parent loses their job or is diagnosed with a severe chronic illness, the court may approve a modification of the custody arrangement; and
  • Change in Lifestyle: If a substantial change in the parent’s lifestyle may threaten or harm the child, the court may justify ordering a change in the custody arrangement.

Keep in mind that the courts prefer not to change visitation arrangements once the child’s schedule is settled. However, if there is a good reason to do so, the court will grant a modification.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Child Custody and Visitation Issues?

If you are dealing with issues regarding child custody or visitation arrangements, it is in your best interests to consult an experienced child custody lawyer. The right attorney can help you talk through the situation, offer advice on how to proceed, and guide you through the court system. When things get contentious, it can be extremely helpful to have an experienced attorney on your side to help protect your relationship with your children and preserve your rights.