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.