When a couple decides to end their marriage, they have to deal with a number of very personal issues on a legal level. If they have minor children, the most important issues usually deal with their care, custody, and financial support during the divorce process and after it becomes final.
If the parents cannot come to an agreement on visitation, custody, or child support, the case then goes to family court. The court makes a decision on each unresolved issue according to the laws of that jurisdiction. It finalizes it through the form of a decree, which both parents then must abide by until it is changed or eliminated. Here is a short guide to children’s issues and the divorce process.
The two most common issues that need to be addressed in all divorces with minor children are child custody and visitation rights and child support obligations. Each issue is addressed through a separate document and can be changed or eliminated through proper legal petitions. Although the laws vary from state to state, there is one standard that holds true throughout the jurisdictions, which is that the court’s ultimate charge is to find what is in the best interests of the child.
A child custody order is a legal document that specifies the living arrangements of the children after the divorce as well as visitation and other rights for each parent. For physical custody, the judge will decide to give the parents joint custody or give one parent sole custody. In the latter case, the judge will then decide whether or not to award visitation rights to the other parent.
Joint custody is the most commonly awarded type. That is, unless the court deems one parent unfit to have any physical custody, and the court order details the schedule of who gets custody when, including considerations for holidays. With child custody disputes, even details like drop-off times and locations can become contentious, so when it comes to these schedules the specifics are not ignored.
So how is custody determined? The court will look at a number of factors. They will look at each parent’s ability to properly care for the child. This often means that courts will scrutinize each parent’s mental health and consider any history of abuse or neglect. A child’s attachment to an area like a home and school environment often plays a deciding role, as courts are increasingly unwilling to uproot kids unless there are more pressing circumstances.
The quality of the relationship between parent and child is also important, and a court will often take a child’s wishes into consideration, especially if the child is older. Balancing the parent’s rights and the comfort and needs of the children is the goal of any custody order. It is also important to note that a parent’s rights go beyond physical custody. Unless the court says otherwise, each parent has the right to have a say in the direction of the child’s life. This includes matters like education, extracurricular activities and sports, religion, and healthcare choices.
Child support is the legal duty that one parent owes another for the care of their children after the marriage is dissolved. While the laws and calculations can vary widely from state to state, every single one has laws codifying this obligation.
The court will determine how much support is owed on a case-by-case basis. They will look at the earning power of each spouse, physical custody arrangements, and the overall needs of the children including healthcare costs. Once established, the parent is obligated to pay these funds as per the child support order signed by the judge. Failure to pay can result in a civil suit, usually filed through the attorney general’s office in each state.
Once a support order is issued, that does not mean it is set in stone until the child becomes an adult. Either parent can file to modify the order to increase or decrease (or even eliminate) the amount when there is a change in circumstances either with the children or with the financial situation of either party. Most orders terminate on majority age, but every state is different.
While it is the ultimate goal to keep a child as connected as possible to each parent, there are some instances where a court may decide otherwise. If there is a history of domestic or child abuse in the home, the court will create custody and visitation orders. This is done with the purpose of reducing harm and keeping the children out of potentially harmful circumstances.
Severe mental health issues and any history of substance abuse will also significantly affect these decisions. Another important consideration is the possibility of moving or relocation, which can have a big impact on parent’s rights. Many states now include instructions limiting the parents’ relocation rights for custody purposes.
These decisions are such a vital part of the divorce process that it is necessary to find a family law attorney to help. They will be able not only to explain the laws in your state, but be your advocate during any negotiations or court proceedings to make sure your rights are represented.