Child custody matters tend to be the most heart-wrenching and contentious in all of family law. One parent views the other as trying to deny his or her right to visit with the child, losing precious parental time in the process. Or a parent may sincerely be trying to protect his or her child from the poor behavior and parental unfitness exhibited by the other parent. Regardless of which side you are on, your only goal is to seek what’s best for your child. If you have a child custody dispute, retaining experienced legal counsel is essential to protecting your rights as a parent and the well-being of your child. Let Cohen Family Law counsel and serve you today.
The Different Types of Child Custody
Arizona recognizes two broad categories of child custody: parenting time and legal decision-making. Parenting time (previously called physical custody) includes the child’s daily living arrangements, how the child shares time with the parents, and special times like holiday visits and vacations. Meanwhile, legal decision-making sometimes previously referred to as legal custody, refers to the authority to make important decisions about the child’s upbringing. These include religious instruction, education, and healthcare.
Courts begin with the presumption that joint custody is appropriate for both physical and legal custody. In other words, the courts will assume, absent evidence to the contrary, that it is in the best interests of children for both parents to make decisions for them. A parent can request sole physical and/or legal custody if he or she believes there is a compelling reason to do so, for instance where there is evidence of child abuse.
How Do Courts Make Custody Decisions?
Whenever judges are asked to decide custody (legal decision-making and parenting time), they must prioritize the best interests of the child. More specifically, the court must evaluate a number of factors that are relevant to the child’s physical and emotional well-being, including but not limited to:
- The relationship between both parents and the child, including the past, present, and potential future relationship
- The family dynamic (e.g. interaction of the child with the child’s parents and siblings)
- The child’s adjustment to home, school, and community
- The preferences of the child, if the child is of suitable age and maturity
- The mental and physical health of the child and the child’s parents
- Which parent is more likely to allow meaningful and frequent contact with the child to the other parent (however, evidence of domestic violence will be considered if a parent is withholding such contact in the child’s best interests)
- Evidence that either parent has deliberately delayed litigation or increased the cost of litigation
- Evidence of domestic violence or child abuse
- Whether either parent has tried to coerce the other into accepting an agreement concerning parenting time or legal decision-making
- Whether a parent has complied with Chapter 3, article 5 of the custody statute (concerning participation in a required parent education program)
- Whether either parent has falsely reported child abuse or neglect
What is the Parent Education Program?
The above factors reference a parent education program, which is required in all cases in which parents have asked the court to determine custody. The objective of this program is to help parents understand how their divorce or separation may impact their child’s well-being. The class also teaches parents to understand the value of positive communication with each other, how to effectively co-parent, and more.
The parent education program must be completed within 45 days of the initial custody filing. There is a registration fee (currently $50 per person) and the class takes about three hours. When a parent has completed the course, he or she is issued a Certificate of Completion. This certificate must be filed with the court before the judge will issue any final custody and parenting orders.
What is a Parenting Plan?
Parents seeking joint custody are required to submit a parenting plan for the judge’s consideration. This written document will provide a detailed custody and time-sharing plan that, if approved by the judge, will become an enforceable court order.
You should work with an experienced child custody attorney to develop a comprehensive plan that will meet the judge’s approval. At a minimum, plans should cover the following:
- Whether one parent will have sole legal decision-making or the parents will share joint authority
- Each parent’s rights and responsibilities over the child’s personal care, education, healthcare, and religious upbringing
- A parenting schedule (with whom the child will spend time), including for holidays and vacations
- A procedure for transporting the child for exchanges between the parents
- A method to resolve proposed changes, disputes, and alleged breaches (e.g. using private counseling or mediation)
- A procedure for periodic review of the parenting plan
- A plan for communications between the parents regarding the child (including how, when, and how often)
- A statement that each party has read, understands, and will follow the notification requirements contained in § 25-403.05(B) of the Arizona statutes (this section concerns convicted or registered sex offenders who may have access to the children)
Contact Our Phoenix Child Custody Attorney
Child custody is complex and rife with emotional challenges. The best step you can take is to call Cohen Family Law. We can explore options such as mediation and how our team can make the process of determining custody less stressful for you and your child. To get started or to learn more, give us a call today.