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Child Custody & Visitation
When the parents of a child are divorced, it is usually desirable that both parents still have an active role in the care and upbringing of their children. One good way to ensure this happens is to take all reasonable effort to avoid conflict between the two parents, so they can focus on the well-being of their child.
To this end, parents should try to come up with an arrangement on child custody and visitation rights which they both find agreeable.
It is up to a family court to enter a judgment granting one parent custody, and visitation rights to the other parent. However, if the parents can come to an agreement on their own, the court will usually defer to their decision, under the assumption that they know what's best for their child, and simply enter a judgment that mirrors the parents' agreement.
Sometimes, however, the parents cannot agree over who should get custody, and what visitation rights the other parent should have. In such a case, the court has to decide for them. Sadly, child custody sometimes becomes a tool that feuding couples use to try to hurt one another, which is not good for anyone, least of all the child. Therefore, if a court has to create a child custody scheme for the parents, their desires and whims may be given little weight.
Instead, the court will usually base its decision on what it deems the best interests of the child. In considering what's in the child's best interests, the court will consider many factors. If the child is old enough to express such preferences, the court will simply ask the child which parent they would prefer to live with. In some cases, this will be given significant weight, but it will never be the sole deciding factor.
A court will also consider the lifestyle of each parent, and determine which is more conducive to a stable and healthy environment – particularly, a court will look at a parent's work schedule to determine if they have sufficient time to spend with the child.
A court might also consider which parent was the primary caregiver during the marriage. Obviously, it would be least disruptive to the child to have them live with that parent. A court will also consider the mental and physical health of each parent.
You should be aware that these are simply the most common factors that a court considers, but by no means the only ones. A family court has broad discretion to consider just about any fact that might be relevant in determining which parent is best suited to have physical custody of the child.
The non-custodial parent will almost always have some legal right to visit their child, to ensure that they still have a role in the child's life. Again, it's best for everyone if the parents can agree to a visitation arrangement amongst themselves. Of course, if they can't, the court will have to create a visitation schedule, which may prove unsatisfactory to both parents, so it's much better to try and come to an agreement everyone can live with.
Once a visitation schedule is agreed upon, or ordered by a family court, it is important that the parents actually abide by it. Repeatedly violating a visitation agreement can get you cited for contempt of court.
There are many types of visitation arrangements. Typically, the non-custodial parent will have access to the children a few days per week, without supervision, during which time they are under his or her "custody" for practical purposes, meaning that he or she is responsible for their safety and welfare.
In some cases, if the non-custodial parent had shown violent or criminal tendencies, a court might condition visitation rights on the parent consenting to the presence of another adult to supervise them. This supervisor has to be someone other than the custodial parent, and has to be approved by the court. The supervisor might be another relative, or a social worker (usually provided at the expense of the visiting parent).