Child Custody Decisions in Vermont

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 What are the Parental Rights and Responsibilities For Child Custody?

The court utilizes the phrase “parental rights and responsibilities” to describe custody in Vermont. There are two parts to parental rights and responsibilities: physical responsibility and legal responsibility.

Physical responsibility is where your child resides and the person who takes physical responsibility for the child’s day-to-day needs. A court can order that physical responsibility be awarded to both or one parent. However, a court can only order this if both parents agree. If a court is asked to choose, they must pick one parent.

Furthermore, legal responsibility is who has the right to make major decisions about the child’s life. A court can order that legal responsibility is in one or both parents. Here are some examples of major decisions:

  • Where your child attends school;
  • What religion does your child practice;
  • Which doctor your child sees; and
  • Whether your child can travel outside of Vermont.

If there is no court order about your child, who has custody (physical and legal responsibility) of the child, varies on your situation? There are two common situations below. If you are in dispute with someone who claims to be a parent, check out the local county’s Parentage page to determine the parties’ rights.

The first example is if you are married to the child’s biological parent, and there is no court order about custody, then both parents have physical and legal responsibility for the child until a court issues a custody order.

The second example is if you are not married to the child’s father and if there is no court order about parentage, only the mother has legal and physical responsibility. This is referred to as guardianship. The father may be able to get legal and physical responsibility, but he must file for parentage first.

If you cannot agree, the court will decide for you. Every case is unique, but the court considers the same factors in most cases when parental rights and responsibilities are in dispute; some of these circumstances include the following:

  • The relationship of the child with each parent and their responsibility to provide the child with love, affection, and guidance;
  • Each parent’s ability to ensure that the child receives adequate food, clothing, medical care, other material needs, and a safe environment;
  • Each parent’s ability to meet the child’s present and future developmental needs;
  • The quality of the child’s adjustment to the child’s present housing, school, and community, including the potential effect of any change;
  • Each parent’s ability to foster a positive relationship and frequent and continuing contact with the other parent (except when contact with the other parent will result in harm to the child or the parent);
  • The quality of the child’s relationship with the primary care provider is considered a top priority. But the weight of this factor depends on the child’s age and development. Other factors can outweigh it;
  • The relationship of the child with any other person who may significantly impact the child;
  • If the parents plan to share or divide parental rights and responsibilities, how well do they communicate and cooperate in making joint parenting decisions; and
  • Evidence of abuse and its impact on the child.

If you request the court to decide about legal or physical parental rights and responsibilities, you should focus on these factors when showing your case to the court. Remember, the court cannot order you to share legal or physical parental rights and responsibilities unless you both agree. The court will not prefer one parent because of the sex of the parent or the child. And the court will not prefer one parent because they are financially better off than the other.

The court may make special orders concerning parent-child contact in domestic violence cases to protect the child. The Legislature has identified several conditions the court may impose, which can be found here. In most cases, everyone is better off when the parents can agree on a parenting plan.

What are the Different Arrangements for Custody?

There are different arrangements for child custody, and your parenting plan must be in your child’s best interests for a judge to approve it. Protecting your child should be your priority. Your child needs to know that you are responsible for caring for them and spending time with them.

When working on an agreement, consider these areas:

  • Physical living arrangements: This has to do with where the child stays and when. You must decide which home your child will sleep at and on which nights;
  • Parent-child contact: This plan is generally for the parent who does not have physical custody or when custody is shared. Parents often work out a holiday and school vacation schedule. If you have difficulty communicating with the other parent, you may want a more detailed schedule so that fewer disputes occur;
  • Legal responsibilities: Will you make decisions jointly about major matters such as your child’s schooling, medical care, travel, and religious upbringing? If not, which parent will be responsible?;
  • Medical and dental care and health insurance: Will one parent be responsible for taking the child for nonemergency medical care?;
  • Travel arrangements: Who will provide transportation for parent-child contact, and who will pay the costs? Under what circumstances can the child travel out of state or country?;
  • Communicating with each other: Parenting does not end with separation. You will need to consider how you will communicate about your child’s schedule, school progress, extracurricular activities, and child care. Your child should not be responsible for passing information about these issues between you;
  • Resolving disagreements: You must decide how you will resolve any disputes that may arise about your child. The court should not be the first option to resolve a dispute. This is because it is not generally in the child’s best interest, and court hearings cannot always be set quickly. If you cannot agree, a mediator, a therapist, or a counselor may be able to assist you; and
  • Mediation: Provides a structure for communicating at a time when cooperating is difficult. Parties work with a mediator to reach an agreement, which is then written down. Mediation is less formal than a public hearing in court.

Furthermore, the Vermont Superior Court Family Mediation Program provides subsidized mediation services to qualifying people if you and your ex-spouse are having difficulty communicating, the court may refer you for parent coordination—a process that provides both you and your child opportunities to be heard regarding a range of issues.

Those issues could include visitation and exchanges, health and safety issues, how parenting decisions are made, and how the two parents can communicate. At the end of the process, the parent coordinator will submit a report to the court that describes your agreement. If you do not agree, it will make recommendations to the court.

Additionally, the Vermont Judiciary states that even if you do not agree on all parenting issues, you should try to agree on as many as possible. For instance, you might agree to share major decisions or legal rights and responsibilities. But you may be unable to agree about where your child will reside daily and how much time they will spend with each of you. In that case, you can tell the court that you agree on legal rights and responsibilities and request the court to decide the other questions.

When Do I Need to Contact a Lawyer?

If you reside in Vermont and are dealing with child custody issues, you should contact a local Vermont child custody lawyer to guide you with your case.

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