Sometimes, parents are unable to agree on child custody matters on their own. Child custody disputes may involve legal custody, which refers to a parent’s right to make significant decisions about their child’s upbringing, education, medical care, and religious instruction.
Another aspect of child custody is physical custody, which concerns the parent with whom the child lives. Parents who are unable to reach an agreement on legal or joint custody matters can attempt to resolve these issues through mediation or the court system (litigation).
What is Voluntary Mediation?
Voluntary mediation is a process in which parents willingly try to work out custody disputes with the assistance of a neutral third party, known as a mediator. Throughout the mediation process, the mediator listens to the concerns and arguments of each parent. The mediator may work by “shuttling” between the parties, allowing each parent to speak without the presence of the other.
The mediator’s role is to act as an intermediary, informing each party of the other’s concerns or issues while guiding the practicality of their positions in light of the law and the case’s specific details. By doing so, the mediator encourages the parents to find common ground. If the parents can find common ground, they may be able to reach an agreement on one or more issues.
Their agreement is a written document outlining each party’s rights and responsibilities concerning a particular issue. Both parties sign this document, a legally binding contract under the law. If one party fails to comply with any agreement terms, the other party may take legal action for breach of contract.
Mediation is generally non-binding, meaning the parties can terminate the process anytime. The mediator cannot impose a settlement; both parties must voluntarily accept any agreement.
What is Court-Ordered Mediation?
Unlike voluntary mediation, which involves parties not engaged in a lawsuit agreeing to mediate, court-ordered mediation is mandated by a court during an ongoing lawsuit. The mediator’s role in court-ordered mediation is the same as in voluntary mediation, remaining neutral and unable to enforce an outcome. The parties must mutually agree on the outcome.
There are some differences between court-ordered and voluntary mediation. The primary distinction is that a court can require parties to participate in mediation, and even if the mediation does not result in an agreement, the court can mandate future mediation sessions.
Mediation is generally less formal, more affordable, and faster than litigation, whether voluntary or court-ordered.
What is Child Custody Litigation?
If parents cannot reach an agreement through voluntary or court-ordered mediation, they must present their dispute to a court for resolution through litigation. During litigation, each party can present their case to a judge, arguing why they should be granted custody.
The judge listens to the arguments of both parties, evaluates any presented evidence, and issues a child custody order that specifies each side’s rights and responsibilities. In making child custody decisions, the judge follows the “best interests of the child” standard, considering what will be most beneficial for the child.
Factors a court may consider when determining the best interests of the child can include (but are not limited to):
Each Parent’s Financial Ability to Care for the Child
A parent’s financial stability is crucial in child custody decisions, directly impacting the child’s well-being. The court will assess each parent’s income, employment stability, and overall financial resources to determine their ability to provide for the child’s needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, education, and extracurricular activities.
For example, a parent with a steady job and a history of responsible financial behavior may be seen as more capable of providing a stable environment for the child. In contrast, a parent who struggles with debt or has a history of unemployment may be viewed as less equipped to meet the child’s financial needs.
Each Parent’s Mental and Physical Health
Each parent’s mental and physical health is another critical factor in child custody decisions. A parent who is physically or mentally incapable of caring for a child may not be granted custody or may receive limited visitation rights.
For instance, a parent with a history of mental health issues, such as depression or bipolar disorder, may be required to demonstrate that they receive proper treatment and can effectively care for the child.
Similarly, a parent with a physical disability or chronic illness may need to show that their condition does not impede their ability to meet the child’s needs. In both cases, the court’s primary concern is ensuring the child’s safety and well-being.
The Child’s Health and Age
The age and health of the child are also significant factors in custody decisions. Younger children typically require more hands-on care and attention, which may impact the court’s determination of the most suitable custodial arrangement.
For example, a parent who works long hours or travels frequently may not be deemed the best primary caregiver for a toddler who needs consistent care and supervision.
Additionally, if the child has special needs or a medical condition that requires ongoing treatment, the court will consider which parent is better equipped to handle those responsibilities. For instance, a parent who has consistently been involved in the child’s medical care and better understands the child’s needs may be favored in a custody decision.
The Emotional Bond Between the Child and Each Parent
The emotional connection between a child and each parent is another vital consideration in child custody decisions. The court will evaluate the quality and depth of the relationship between the child and each parent, considering factors such as the amount of time spent together, the level of involvement in the child’s daily life, and the parent’s ability to provide emotional support and guidance.
For example, if one parent has been the primary caregiver throughout the child’s life, attending school events, helping with homework, and being involved in their emotional development, the court may be more inclined to award custody to that parent.
Conversely, a parent who has been largely absent or uninvolved in the child’s life may have difficulty gaining custody.
The Child’s Own Preferences Regarding Parental Custody
As children grow older, their preferences and opinions can play a more significant role in custody decisions. In some jurisdictions, the court will give weight to the child’s preference, provided that the child is mature enough to make an informed decision. This typically applies to children aged 12 or older, although the specific age may vary depending on the jurisdiction.
The court will assess the child’s reasons for preferring one parent over the other, considering factors such as the child’s comfort level in each parent’s home, the stability of the living environment, and the child’s relationships with siblings or other family members.
For example, a teenager with a strong bond with one parent feels more supported emotionally and academically and has a stable network of friends and extracurricular activities in that parent’s community may express a desire to stay with that parent.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Child Custody Issues?
If you and your spouse cannot voluntarily agree on child custody matters, consult with an experienced child custody attorney. A lawyer found on LegalMatch can help you settle your child custody issues and allow your family to move forward in the best way possible.