The Indiana court makes decisions regarding sole custody and shared, or joint, custody based on the best interest of the child standard. In the event that the parents fail to reach a mutual agreement regarding a custody arrangement that is acceptable to a judge, the judge enters a custody order that reflects the judge’s determination based on a number of relevant factors.

What Factors Are Used in Deciding a Custody Order?

First of all, joint custody is the preferred outcome in the Indiana family court system. This is thought to be the best way to keep both parents equally involved in the child’s life. Joint custody can have a number of different features. Among them are sharing physical custody of the child, sharing legal custody, or sharing a combination of both physical and legal custody.

Legal custody is the right to make long-term decisions about a child’s upbringing and key issues regarding a child’s welfare, such as the child’s education, medical care, dental care, and religious instruction. The term “physical custody” refers to where a child lives. If physical custody is “joint,” it means that the child would live part-time with one parent and part-time with the other.

Share legal custody means that the parents would have to jointly make decisions about the child’s upbringing.

Usually, in Indiana, legal custody is awarded to both parents. This is referred to as “joint legal custody.” Legal custody would be joint unless there is evidence to show that one parent is somehow unfit or incapable of making decisions about the child’s upbringing. For example, if it is shown that one parent has a history of drug abuse, domestic violence, or child neglect, then these factors would play a role in this decision. Evidence of this kind could well lead a court to place legal custody in one parent only.

When deciding on a joint custody agreement of any kind, a judge looks at a number of factors in coming to a decision, including some of the following:

  • The willingness of the parents to co-parent the child and share custody;
  • Whether the parents have already created or expressed interest in creating a co-parenting plan;
  • Whether the parents are living geographically close enough to each other to make a joint physical custody agreement workable for them;
  • Whether the parents have shown an ability to communicate effectively with one another;
  • Whether the parents have shown a willingness to work on a positive relationship between the child and the other parent;
  • Whether either of the parents have engaged in abusive behavior or have been cited for abuse in the past.

In addition to these factors, a court in Indiana considers “all relevant factors” in determining which type of custody order best suits the needs of all parties. Some of the factors would be:

  • The child’s age and gender;
  • The wishes of the child, especially if the child is 14 years of age or older and it is appropriate to ask the child to express a preference. In some cases, the judge will speak to the child outside the presence of the parents in order to learn the child’s preference for living with one parent or the other;
  • The relationship of the child with each of the parents, as well as relationships with siblings, and any other significant figure in the child’s life, e.g. grandparents;
  • The general physical and mental health of all the people involved in the family relationship;
  • Evidence that either parent has inflicted abuse or engaged in domestic violence;
  • Whether there is Involvement of a de facto custodian or guardian.

Are There Special Provisions in Indiana Child Custody Laws?

Indiana child custody laws make special mention of circumstances involving a de facto custodian who gives care to the child. If the child is currently under the care of a de facto custodian, the court will make the custodian a party to the custody proceeding. The court may award custody to the de facto custodian if that is shown to be in the best interests of the child.

What If We Need to Change the Custody Arrangement?

As time goes on, the needs of the child and the circumstances of the parents may change. If this happens, it often means there needs to be a modification made of the Indiana child custody agreement. Even if both parents agree to the modification, they must still go through the Indiana court system and have the modification approved and officially changed by the court in their custody agreement.

If the parents do not agree to the modification, the parent requesting the change is required to prove that the change is needed and that it would benefit the child in some way.

Proving that a modification is needed can be challenging. Too much change in a child’s lifestyle or schedule is viewed as potentially damaging to their mental and emotional health, so the state of Indiana prefers to keep modifications to a minimum.

In order to have the modification approved, the parent requesting it would need to prove the following:

  • There was a significant change in the circumstances of either the parent or the child that makes the modification necessary to support the child’s well-being;
  • The modification being requested could benefit the child in some way, such as offering them better educational or social opportunities;
  • The disruptions the child would experience because of the modification would be balanced by the benefits to the child.

What If One Parent Needs to Relocate?

Relocation requests are handled in generally the same way as other requests for modifications. Even if both parents agree to the relocation, they still need to submit the planned changes to a judge for approval. If the judge agrees with the plan, they would issue a new order incorporating the new child custody agreement.

If one parent is contesting the relocation, it then falls to the parent who wishes to move to prove that the relocation is necessary and would benefit the child in some way. Once the parent seeking approval of a relocation has presented their evidence in support of the move, the contesting parent can present their evidence. The judge then considers the evidence and arguments pro and con in light of the following factors.

Again, the judge’s goal is to make the best possible decision for the child:

  • The age and gender of any child in the family;
  • The reason for which the relocation is requested, such as a better job, better educational opportunities, or living closer to immediate family members;
  • The reason for which the other parent is contesting the relocation;
  • The relationship between the child and the parent requesting the relocation;
  • The relationship between the child and the parent contesting the relocation;
  • Whether alternate communication methods between the child and the contesting parent would be available at a reasonable cost if the relocation were to be approved;
  • The benefits the child would experience form the relocation, such as better educational opportunities, a better social environment or being closer to supportive family members

Do I Need to Contact a Lawyer for Child Custody Issues?

Any child custody hearing will involve consideration of several factors and their relation to current Indiana laws. The services of an experienced Indiana child custody lawyer would be extremely helpful in ensuring that your child’s best interests are served by the final custody order. Contacting a local child custody attorney is a good first step in protecting the interests of your child.