Divorce is a stressful and emotional experience, and if there are children involved it can be even worse. Divorcing couples not only separate their assets and debts, they must also separate time spent with their children.
Since both parents usually want to spend as much time as possible with their kids, child custody is often the basis of many heated arguments, which can stress the kids out even more. When the courts need to step in and establish a child custody plan, it’s imperative to have an experienced family law attorney by your side to protect your parental rights.
If you’re divorcing from your spouse and you have one or more children together, here’s some helpful information about child custody.
What is the Best Interest of the Child?
A child custody agreement is not necessarily what either parent wants. For example, a mother does not automatically get custody of her children in a divorce. Often, both parents cannot agree and a judge is needed to determine what is in the best interest of the child, including where the child’s primary residence will be and who will make the decisions regarding the child’s education.
What is a Guardian Ad Litem?
A guardian ad litem (GAL) is a person appointed by the court who acts as a representative for the child during a custody case. Usually an attorney, the GAL’s job is to interview the child and his or her parents, visit each parent’s home, and provide a detailed report to the judge overseeing the case.
When is Mediation Used for Custody Arrangements?
To help a divorcing couple work out a custody arrangement without going to trial, the court may order them to participate in mediation. During mediation, each parent is able to speak freely in an informal setting. A family law attorney or counselor is present during mediation to help the couple reconcile their differences and negotiate a child custody agreement.
When do Child Custody Cases go to Trial?
When divorcing parents are not able to reach an agreement on child custody, whether on their own or through mediation, the next step is to schedule a child custody hearing. During the trial, each parent presents his or her case to the judge, and witnesses such as relatives, neighbors, teachers, or a guardian ad litem, may be called to testify. In the end, the judge makes the final decisions in the custody agreement.
Joint vs. Sole Custody
When a judge needs to determine the best interest of a child, part of the process is establishing whether the parents will have joint custody or one parent will have sole custody.
One parent is chosen as the custodial parent, and the child lives with him or her. The noncustodial parent has specific days and times for visitation with the child that occur on a regular, pre-planned basis. With joint custody, both parents are supposed to share the responsibilities and decisions related to the child.
When parents cannot work together, sole custody may be awarded to the custodial parent, giving him or her the ability to make any decisions regarding the child without the other parent’s consent. The noncustodial parent, however, is still allowed visitation with the child and should be kept up to speed with school and medical information.
Can a Parent Modify a Custody Agreement?
To have a custody agreement modified there must be a compelling reason or existing problem. Since the court always considers the best interest of the child, judges don’t want to be bothered with modification requests that stem from petty arguments between disagreeing parents. After examining the current custody arrangement, a court may grant a modification if the reasoning is strong.
Reasons for Child Custody Modifications
A parent may be able to modify his or her custody agreement if one of the following situations arises.
Relocation of a Parent
When a parent needs to relocate out of necessity, such as starting or keeping a job or they can no longer afford to live in their current location.
When a child is in some kind of danger, such as living in a home with domestic violence or the custodial parent cannot afford to pay the utility bills and the water or electricity is shut off.
Death or Illness of a Parent
When the custodial parent is seriously ill or dies, the court will need to determine another caregiver. This may or may not be the noncustodial parent, depending on his or her location and living situation.
When a noncustodial parent stops showing up for court-ordered visitations or one of the parent’s work schedule changes, making it impossible to adhere to the original visitation arrangement.
Having both parents in a child’s life is important, but heated divorce and custody disagreements can make it difficult to find a common ground. Sure, you can represent yourself in a child custody mediation or trial, by why would you want to? At Gottlieb, Johnston, Beam & Dal Ponte, P.L.L., our family law attorneys can help with the complicated scenarios that can arise in custody cases. Contact us today to find out how you can protect your rights during child custody agreements and divorce.