Divorce is consistently ranked among the top sources of stress and depression. Fighting over custody and child support can be difficult for both parents and their children. Historically, divorce has meant that fathers' time with their children was dramatically reduced, but in recent years, states have taken steps to ensure that fathers have access to their children. In all states, child custody decisions are made according to the child's best interests. In Utah, child support is determined according to a child support calculator that takes into account the child's needs and parent's expenses.
When children are born within a marriage, the mother's husband is the presumed father. When children are born outside of marriage — even when the parents subsequently marry — the father must establish paternity before he can assert his rights to the child. Until the father is established as the child's legal father, the mother is the only parent with legal rights to the child. The parents can both submit a stipulation of paternity to the court, or the father can undergo a paternity test and petition the court to establish him as the child's legal father.
Custody decisions are made according to the best interests of the child and judges are permitted to consider a number of factors, including each parent's parenting competence, the stability of the environment each parent can provide for the child, and the child's attachment to each parent. Parents who were the child's primary caretaker prior to the divorce are more likely to get custody. There are two aspects of custody that must be determined: legal and physical. Legal custody addresses who may make decisions about the child; there is a presumption in Utah courts in favor of joint legal custody. Physical custody establishes where the child lives. Parents petitioning the courts for custody must attach a parenting plan to their petitions. When parents are able to cooperate with one another and when it is in the best interests of the child, judges are more likely to award joint physical custody.
Even when one parent does not receive custody of the child, there is a strong presumption in favor of granting visitation. Even when the noncustodial parent has a history of abuse or criminal behavior, judges often grant supervised visitation. Utah has standard visitation guidelines that require a minimum of six hours of contact per week with the noncustodial parent for children under the age of five, and a minimum of one weekday every two weeks and one weekend every two weeks for children five and older. Because these guidelines provide only a small amount of time, Utah is often considered a state that is unfriendly to noncustodial parents who are typically fathers. These guidelines are merely minimums, however, and many noncustodial parents get substantially more visitation.
Utah offers a child-support calculator that helps parents determine the monthly expenses for the child. Parents are required to pay their share of family income toward the child support obligation. For example, if the monthly child support obligation is $2,000 and the father earns 70 percent of the family's income, he will be required to pay $1,400 (70 percent of $2,000). When the father is the noncustodial parent, the mother does not pay child support directly to the father; rather her child support obligation is paid by directly purchasing the things the child needs. When parents share physical custody, judges may require that both parties pay child support, neither party pays child support or each party contribute a certain amount directly to the child's regular expenses.
Utah law permits parents to petition for a custody or visitation modification if there has been a material change in the child's circumstances and a change would be in the child's best interests. For example, a father who received only limited visitation because of a drug problem would be able to petition the court for more visitation if he attended rehab and became drug-free. Parents may also request their child-support obligations be changed if they lose their jobs, experience extraordinary medical expenses or suffer other financial hardships. Modifications should be requested in the county where the original order was issued.