In a divorce or legal separation context, as well as other situations, each parent may have different rights with regard to their child or children. In most cases, each parent will have rights with regard to child custody and child visitation. These are two family law legal issues that are separate and different, but that interact very closely with one another. 

Child custody refers to the caretaking rights that a parent has to have the child stay with them, as well as various other legal rights in connection with the child (such as the right to make decisions on their behalf). These rights may be divided between the parents. There are different types of custody and custody arrangements, including:

  • Physical Custody: This refers to a parent’s rights to have the child live or stay with them;
  • Legal Custody: This refers to the parent’s rights to make important legal decisions on the child’s behalf;
  • Sole Custody: In some cases, one parent may have all the rights to the child. In such cases, the parent with the rights is called the custodial parent, while the other is called the non-custodial parent
  • Joint or Shared Custody: Here, the parents may split physical custody and legal custody rights in a way prescribed by the court; and
  • Various other types of custody rights.

Child visitation refers to the rights that a parent has to visit a child, or to have the child stay with them for a short period of time. In most cases, this refers to the rights of the non-custodial parent. Since they don’t have custody of the child most of the time, courts may grant them specific times that they can visit with the child, such as on weekends or every other week. 

Determining child custody and visitation arrangements is a very complex process. Many factors may be reviewed, including the background and abilities of the parents, the child’s background, and other elements. All custody and visitation arrangements are made with the child’s best interest in mind. 

What Can You Do If Your Child Custody and Visitation Order was Violated?

Ideally, child custody and visitation agreements are finalized by the parents involved, and then approved by the court into a legally enforceable agreement. Since they are legally enforceable, violations of child custody and visitation orders are treated seriously and can lead to legal consequences. 

Some common examples of violations may include:

  • Keeping the child with you for a longer visit than what is provided for in the custody or visitation order;
  • Failing to inform the other parent of the child’s whereabouts; 
  • Taking the child on a long trip without asking for approval first;
  • Taking the child outside of state lines (can lead to federal issues); 
  • Allowing an unauthorized person to care for the child; 
  • Denying the other parent their custody or visitation rights;
  • Various other violations. 

If these types of situations occur, it is advisable not to try to take matters into your own hands. You should first contact the relevant authorities, such as the police, especially if the child has been gone for some time or is missing. 

It is also advisable to inform the court as soon as possible once a potential violation has been recognized. This way, you can avoid potentially doing something that might also be a violation. 

What Happens If You Don’t Follow a Court Order for Child Custody or Visitation?

Violations of a court order for child custody or visitation can lead to serious consequences. First, since the arrangement is essentially a court order, violating a child custody or visitation agreement can lead to contempt of court issues. This can result in consequences including possible criminal penalties such as fines or jail time. 

Also, and perhaps more importantly, violations of a custody/visitation order can lead to a loss of parental rights for the parent who is in violation. If they are a custodial parent, they can lose their custody rights to the child, or have their custody reduced. If they are a noncustodial parent, they may lose some or all of their visitation rights (and possibly whatever custody rights they do have).

Thus, seeking to gain more custody or visitation time outside of the court’s approval can actually create a situation where you lose custody or visitation rights. 

How Can I Avoid a Child Custody or Visitation Dispute?

While child custody or visitation disputes and violations can be serious, there are some steps you can take to help avoid them. The first step is to ensure that your child custody and visitation agreement is actually formalized and approved by the court. This makes it so that the custody arrangement is legally enforceable. Sometimes just knowing that an agreement is enforceable under law is enough to help prevent violations and disputes. 

Secondly, if there is a dispute or disagreement regarding the terms of custody and visitation, you should seek a modification of child custody or visitation orders. This can help prevent situations where one or both parents are trying to take matters in their own hands and are trying to create a new arrangement. Any changes should be approved by the court first before they are implemented. 

Failing to have a custody or visitation order modified can also have negative effects on the child. The child may be placed in situations that are confusing or even dangerous for them. In comparison, if the changes are passed through the family law court system first, the court can make the proper determination according to the child’s best interests standard. 

Should I Get a Family Law Attorney to Help with My Child Custody or Visitation Dispute?

Child custody or visitation disputes can have legal effects and consequences on either parent. More importantly, they can place the child in situations that are not ideal for them. 

Thus it’s important that you work closely with a child custody lawyer near you if have any questions or concerns regarding custody or visitation. Your attorney can help answer your questions and can guide and represent you during the custody process.