How are child custody cases decided?
Each child custody case is different, but typically a child custody decision is based on the best interests of the child. This means that courts will prioritize the needs of the child above those of either parent.
States have a slightly different definition of what a child's best interests are, but most courts will look at the following factors:
- The physical, mental, and educational needs of the child
- Childcare arrangements
- Who the primary caretaker of the child was prior to the divorce or separation
- The ability of each parent to provide for the child's needs
- Each parent's unique relationship with the child
- The mental health and overall stability of each parent
- The child's wishes
It is rare that the court will look at any one factor, and typically all of these are weighed holistically.
What is joint custody?
Joint custody (also known as shared custody) is when some or all responsibilities are held by both parents.
In true joint custody arrangements, the parents will share legal custody and physical custody rights equally. This means that the parents will participate equally in decision making about the child's upbringing, education, and welfare, and the child will split their time evenly between the parents.
A true joint custody arrangement is rare for both personal reasons (ex: not wanting to disrupt the child's routine) and practical reasons (ex: scheduling and cost). It is common for parents to have joint legal custody, but for the child to live with one parent more than the other.
Visitation rights govern the non custodial parent's right to spend time with their child. If a parent does not receive primary custody, they can receive visitation time with the child.
The court will often give preference to an agreement or arrangement that the parents have worked out between themselves, as long as the proposal is in the best interests of the child.