A number of factors usually influence child custody cases, and almost by their nature these sorts of decisions are highly fact-specific. Just the same, a few broad categories seem to apply in most instances. Judges sitting in family courts are almost always looking out first and foremost for the best interests of the child or children at issue. A lot can get grouped into this “best interests” category, but in most cases it takes almost everything about the involved children into account — their ages, their routines, and, if they’re old enough, their preferences. Parental situations can also be influential. Things like salary, lifestyle, and history, including any criminal activity, can be decisive. To a lesser extent geography can come into play, particularly if one or both of the parents intends to leave the location where the child is now or has grown up. Courts usually try to take a comprehensive view of what a child’s life would be like in a variety of custody situations before making a ruling. In most cases, decisions can go one of three ways, with parents ending up with sole custody, primary residential custody, or joint custody. Almost all of this is up to the discretion of the judge, and is usually subject to change as warranted by the circumstances.
Best Interest of the Child
Most custody decisions center on the broadly-worded “best interests of the child.” This can mean different things in different circumstances, but it usually though of as the ideal outcome for the child given the separation and differences of the parents. All things being equal, parental responsibility normally is shared between both parents. This is usually what the courts will strive for, but a lot depends on the circumstances. Judges typically consider a lot of evidence from multiple sources to get a sense of what would be best in a given situation for a specific child, rather than drawing generalizations based on what things should look like from an idealized perspective.
Each Parent’s Situation
The specifics of each parent’s situation almost always factor in, too. Things like employment history, schooling and job-specific training, and salary are almost always considered. Stability of home life and living situations can also be important. Things like where the child would stay and how comfortably he or she could be provided for matter, but aren’t usually definitive.
Courts also typically think about how the parents’ locations will influence the child’s quality of life. If one or both parents are leaving the child’s school district, for instance, the court will usually consider the impact of a child switching schools, and will consider questions of commuting between parents and the toll that will necessarily take. It’s often hard if not impossible for parents who don’t live close by to share equally in the custody of their children.
Sole custody is usually granted when one parent is deemed able to care for the child and the other parent is not. Monetary factors are not usually heavily weighted when considering this sort of arrangement; financial status is almost always relevant, but it is not typically used to define the access rights of a parent to a child. After sole custody is awarded to a parent, the other parent usually is relieved of all rights and responsibilities regarding the child. Unless otherwise ordered, all parental ties are severed.
A judge is not likely to order sole custody unless there is a compelling reason to do so. One parent who can prove allegations that the other parent is abusive, is addicted to drugs or alcohol and unwilling to receive treatment, or would otherwise be a danger to the child can sometimes win a judgment of sole custody. Even in custody cases that include these factors, the judge will weigh all of the facts and exhibit caution in making a ruling of sole custody. The decision is usually open for reconsideration after a set amount of time, too.
Primary Residential Custody
Primary residential custody, commonly referred to as physical custody, is usually awarded to one parent. This stipulation denotes the location of where the child resides. Under this sort of arrangement both parents are usually encouraged to take an active role in their child's upbringing, discipline and parenting plans. In child custody cases, the primary residential parent usually will receive child support from the other parent. Child support is designed to assist in the day-to-day expense of raising the child.
When primary residential custody is awarded to one parent, the other parent is granted visitation rights. It is best if the parents can agree on a visitation schedule. Alternatively, the court would set a schedule that is appropriate based on the parents' and child's schedule of work and school. In child custody cases where primary residential custody is awarded, that parent often will retain ownership of the family home to ease the transition for the child.
Joint custody often refers to the physical sharing of the child's time. For example, the child might alternate living with each parent every other week. All expenses usually are shared equally in child custody cases that result in this type of time-sharing plan, provided that the parents' individual incomes are similar.
This arrangement works best when the parents reside in close proximity to each other and close to the child’s school. Care should be taken to minimize disruption in the child’s schedule. Both parents would provide a suitable bedroom for the child, duplicating the child’s basic needs at each household.