How Courts Determine a Custody Arrangement

Posted on 05/10/2010
In Family Law



Custody is a term often used to describe the legal relationship between a parent and a child. In the case of a dissolution of marriage between a couple that has children, a custody arrangement must be reached.

Many parents try to determine a custody arrangement by themselves or with the help of an attorney. However, when a couple cannot come up with a custody arrangement on their own, a court of law must intervene.

Types of Custody Arrangements

If a custody arrangement moves to court, there are four types of custody arrangements that can be set: physical custody, legal custody, joint custody and split custody.

Physical custody is the most common custody arrangement. In this arrangement, the parent with physical custody will be the parent that the children will live with and spend most of their time with. This parent is known as the “custodial parent.”

In many cases, the custodial parent and noncustodial parent will share legal custody of the children. Legal custody means that both parents are required to be involved in making decisions about their children in important areas like health care, education and religion.

Joint custody is a custody arrangement where the children spend an equal amount of time with both parents. While it is beneficial in many cases for children to spend time with both parents, it can be complicated for children — especially younger children — to be moved around so frequently. Joint custody usually does not work if one parent chooses to move away.

Split custody is very rare. In a split custody arrangement, one parent has physical custody of one or more children, while the other parent has physical custody of the remaining children. A court will rarely decide on a split custody arrangement — children are almost never split from their siblings.

Factors in Deciding on a Custody Arrangement

If a court is required to decide on a custody arrangement, there are many factors to consider.

The most important factor that the court will try to determine is what custody arrangement would be in the children’s best interest.

Obviously the factors vary on a case by case basis. Courts generally look at the following criteria to help make a decision:

  • The parents’ physical and mental health.
  • The parents’ history of use or abuse of drugs or alcohol.
  • Any history of excessive discipline or emotional abuse.
  • The need for a stable home environment.
  • The opportunity to spend time with extended family members.
  • Religious or sensitive cultural considerations.
  • The possibility of moving and adjusting to a new neighborhood or school.

Oftentimes the children’s best interest cannot be easily determined, so the courts decide which parent was the “primary caretaker” of the children — for example, if one parent worked while the other stayed at home, the stay-at-home parent would be the primary caretaker.

If the children are old enough, the court will listen to their wishes about which parent to live with when making a custody arrangement.

Facts About Custody Arrangements

The process of a divorce and deciding on a custody arrangement can be very hard on children. It is not uncommon for family law disputes to turn ugly very quickly, as parents do not want to be separated from their children.

A court will do everything in its power to decide on the most civil and fair arrangement for the children. To help an entire family adapt to divorce, courts are beginning to use terms like “custody arrangement” less, substituting terms like “parenting schedule.” This helps the noncustodial parent feel more involved.

According polls and research conducted by the US Census Bureau and the US Department of Health and Human Services, women are usually deemed the custodial parents in cases of divorce. While men make up only about 15 percent of custodial parents, many still have frequent visitations with their children.

Deciding on a custody arrangement can be difficult for courts as well as families. In any case, the children always come first.


One Response to “How Courts Determine a Custody Arrangement”

  1. Amanda Says:

    I am 29 weeks pregnant with my son and his dad and I just broke up because he broke my one rule of living together. He brought drugs into our house where my children live. I caught him twice. He is a recovering alcoholic (recovering used loosely as I feel he’s just hiding it better) he has a history of mental illness and was committed a few years ago for trying to kill himself. His childhood was less than normal and never knew his dad and claims his mom was also never there nor gave him any form of support. This is his first child, my third. I feel he is completely unfit to be a father because he will not grow up or leave his past in the past. He says he misses having no responsibilities and can drink and do drugs and not worry about the next day. He says it was nice thinking it was his last day on earth. He has a suspended license, a commission only job that barely pays him anything and seems to think he can get custody. I have a steady job, no convictions, no drug history or mental health issues, a car and license a supportive family and friends and would love to know what my chances are of getting full custody and keeping him away as I am truly scared that he could harm my little boy to be.

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