When the parents of a child are not married or in a relationship, issues may arise regarding the custody and support of the child. It is usually in the best interest of everyone involved if the parents can come to an amicable agreement between themselves regarding support and custody. Even if the parents can come to an agreement, however, it is prudent to file the agreement with a court that would have jurisdiction over the matter, in case the relationship between the parents deteriorates at a later date. Many courts will allow parents to file a consent order setting forth an agreement regarding custody and support of a child, provided the agreement is determined to be in the child’s best interest. Factors considered in determining whether an agreement is in a child’s best interest include whether the agreement is harmful or beneficial to the child’s emotional and physical health and well-being.
Petition for Custody and Support
If parents cannot come to an agreement regarding the custody and support of their child, one or both of the parents can file a lawsuit seeking court intervention. Generally, courts seek to maintain the parent-child relationship, and will not inhibit a parent’s ability to see his or her child without just cause. When most people think of the term custody, they think of the right to determine a child’s primary residence. Custody is far more complex than simply determining where a child lives, however. In addition to setting forth parameters regarding physical custody, or where a child lives, custody orders can define legal custody of the child, which can include determining which parent has the right to make decisions regarding the child’s education, medical care, and religious upbringing.
Sole and Joint Custody
In addition to physical versus legal custody of a child, a court must determine whether joint or sole custody is appropriate if the parents have not already reached an agreement about this. A court will usually grant parents joint custody unless it is determined to be in the child’s best interest for one parent to have sole custody. If parents share joint custody, however, it may not be an even split. Depending on factors such as which parent is the primary caretaker, and the work and personal obligations of each parent, a court may grant one parent a greater amount of custodial time. In some cases, such as where one parent resides in a different school district than the child, one parent may have primary physical custody of the child during the school year, and the other parent may have primary physical custody of the child during the summer. Custody orders are not permanent, and may be modified either upon agreement between the parents or via a petition to the court. Usually, unless the parents have agreed to modify the agreement, the court will look at whether there has been a change in circumstances significant enough to require a modification, such as a change in the residence of a parent or the child.
How Custody Affects Support
The court will consider the custody arrangement in determining support obligations, but is not the sole determining factor. A parent may be required to provide support payments regardless of whether he or she has joint or primary physical custody of the child. First, the court will examine relevant factors as set forth within the guidelines of the applicable jurisdiction. The court will generally calculate the support obligations of each parent based on the custody arrangement, each parent’s income, and the expenses of each parent and the child. Support orders can define which parent is responsible for providing health insurance for the child, and which parent must cover the cost of medical expenses not covered by insurance. Additionally, a support order can set forth obligations regarding the child’s education. As with custody orders, if a parent’s income or living arrangement changes the parents can either agree to modify the support obligation, or one parent can petition the court for a modification.
Duration of Support Obligations
In most cases, custody and support orders remain in effect until the child reaches the age of majority or completes high school. In some cases, such as where a child has disabilities, the custody and support obligations continue even after the child turns eighteen. Additionally, some support orders may require a parent to pay for continuing education past high school or provide medical insurance or the cost of medical treatment past a child’s eighteenth birthday.
How is child custody decided? The court makes a determination based on what is best for the child, which usually involves the presumption that frequent contact with both parents should continue following the divorce.
Can I move to another state with my child? Some final judgments in divorce proceedings forbid or restrict a parent from taking the child out of state, as doing so can affect visitation and custody rights of the other parent.
Can I request a paternity test for my child? If parentage has not been established, parents can typically ask for a paternity test to find out whether the person assumed to be the father of the child is in fact the child's biological father.
What is a parenting plan? A parenting plan describes the custody and visitation schedule of the parents. It also prescribes who makes key decisions involving the child, such as those involving education, religion, and medical treatment.
Joint vs. Sole Custody Parents usually receive joint custody, which allows each of them to play a role in the child's life and spend time with the child, unless there is a specific reason to give one parent sole custody.
How to Calculate Child Support States have child support guidelines to ensure that a child receives proper support, but courts sometimes can deviate from the guidelines if needed.
Grandparent Visitation and Custody Although a minor's grandparent may file a petition with the court for full care and custody, courts usually prefer that children live with their parents and grant such petitions only in very limited circumstances.
Child Custody Mediation Mediation may offer more cost-effective alternative for parents seeking to resolve child custody issues outside of the courtroom. During a mediation, a neutral mediator will help the parents facilitate a discussion of the issues, and help them come to an agreement if possible.
Fathers’ Rights The father of a child can establish paternity and get custody rights even if he is not married to the child's mother.