During the divorce process, couples either arrive at a mutually acceptable separation agreement detailing how they plan to handle issues relating to minor children or submit to a judge’s ruling. Child custody cases refer to disputes over such issues as:
• How much time the child will spend with each parent
• Custody arrangements for each holiday
• Visitation rights for non-custodial parents
• What information about their child parents must share and in what form that communication will take place
• How major decisions affecting the child’s future will be made, and by whom
• How the child’s health care needs will be met
Child custody cases can unfold during the divorce process or afterwards if one parent is dissatisfied with the arrangement or is not being granted their previously agreed rights. Legal disputes that take place after a separation agreement has taken effect are known as requests to modify a court-sanctioned divorce’s terms.
No matter the state, couples who are divorcing are encouraged to try to negotiate the terms of their separation rather than depending upon a judge’s ruling to resolve their issues. While some states allow couples to file jointly for divorce and others require one spouse to serve another with a copy of a complaint against them, it is always possible for two parents to agree to cooperate and resolve their differences before a scheduled court date.
If a petition is filed by one spouse against another, their partner has the right to file an official response objecting to the proposed separation agreement. Waiving this right will help expedite the process. Two spouses may choose to begin drafting their separation agreement at this point. In most states, if there are any disputes regarding custody, a judge will order the couple to attend a mediation session and split the cost. For couples completing an uncontested divorce, child custody cases will be resolved at this stage. A mediator can help both parties openly and frankly discuss their issues in the hopes of reaching an agreement.
Some couples may wish to separate without being granted a divorce. This will apply to spouses whose religious beliefs preclude formal divorce or who wish to retain joint health insurance coverage. In such cases, most states offer the option of “legal separation,” which covers all the same issues that are resolved in a divorce agreement, including child custody.
When no common ground can be achieved, child custody cases will be resolved by a judge. If it becomes clear this will be the case, one or both spouses may decide to obtain private legal representation to make the strongest possible argument in court. This will contribute significantly to the expense of the divorce process.
In resolving child custody cases, judges in different states follow different guidelines on what to take into consideration. Some of the most common factors include:
• The wishes of a child of sufficient age and maturity
• Both parents’ economic resources and ability to care for the child
• The physical and emotional needs of the child
• Health care expenses