Once paternity has been established or a divorce proceeding has been commenced, the Court must award custody of the child(ren) and visitation to the parties. There are two types of custody: legal and physical.
- Legal custody is parent’s right to make decisions for the child (ie education, religion, medical care) and the parent’s duty to care for the child. When sole legal custody is granted to a parent, s/he has the right to make decisions for the child alone and without consult of the other parent. When joint legal custody is granted to a parent, s/he must consult with the other parent before making decisions for the child.
- Physical custody determines where the child lives. When sole physical custody is granted to a parent, the child lives with that parent on a day to day basis. The other parent usually has visitation (absent a safety issue). When joint physical custody is awarded to a parent, the child lives part of the week with one parent and part of the week with the other. Joint physical custody is only considered in cases where the parties live in close proximity and are able to communicate and work well together.
To determine how much time the child spends with each parent, the court will consider what is in the best interest of the child. The Court considers many factors which may include history of the child’s care, home environment, stability of the parent, other persons that live in the home (ie children, significant other, roommate), substance abuse, mental illness, proximity to school, ability to transport the children. It is important not to get upset at the use of these words. The most important thing is that the children are spending time with each of their parents in a positive, loving environment.
Since these issues are ever changing, the Court may be called upon to reconsider custody or visitation at any point in time if there is a material change in circumstances. Therefore, if a parent is unsatisfied with the Court’s decision, there is always the possibility that she or he can take steps to improve their situation and request different custody or visitation arrangements.