When a couple with children decides to divorce in the United States, they must come to an agreement regarding the custody arrangements for their children. Custody laws typically help define what those arrangements will be and may vary according to region. American courts rely on custody laws to provide guidance regarding the physical, legal, sole, and joint custody of children. Custody decisions are usually made based upon the best interests of the children.
Physical custody allows a parent to have his children live in his residence. Joint physical custody allows both parents to have equal time with the children. This usually works best if the parents do not live too far from each other.
Joint custody may be awarded if parents agree on how the children may be raised and submit a written parenting plan to the court. When parents share joint custody, they usually create a schedule based upon their work obligations, housing arrangements, and the children's needs. If the parents cannot agree on a schedule, the court will impose an arrangement based upon the custody laws in the area.
Legal custody means having the right and the obligation to make decisions about how children will be raised. These decisions may involve schooling, religion, and child care. Many courts will award joint legal custody, allowing the parents to share decision-making responsibilities.
The custody laws in some areas provide that both parents have an equal right to physical custody of their children. A court may keep the parental rights of both parties intact. One parent may be the primary custodian of the children and the other the secondary custodian. Both usually remain involved in the decision-making responsibilities regarding the children.
Courts can classify a parent as unfit due to issues such as alcohol abuse, drug dependence, or abusive tendencies. In this case, a court will usually not hesitate to award sole custody to the other parent. The non-custodial parent will still typically retain visitation rights, although sometimes a court will order supervised visitation. In some jurisdictions, if a child is 14 years or older, he has the right to decide which parent he wants to live with. The child's choice may be honored unless the court finds the parent unfit.
A court may consider the wishes of the parents, the children, and the relationship of all family members when determining a custody arrangement. Some courts study the mental and physical health of both parents and the children, assess how well the individuals communicate, and take into account the age and number of children in the family. The financial situation and stability of each parent might also be examined. Visitation may be awarded to grandparents or any person that is interested in the welfare of the children.