Divorces can be painful and when children are involved, there are often major conflicts. From custody arrangements to child support, parents may find themselves arguing over every area of their children's lives. While state laws vary, every state has enacted the Uniform Child Custody and Enforcement Act authorizing judges to make determinations in a child's best interests.
Child's Best Interests
All states use the "best interests of the child" standard when making custody and visitation determinations. Some states set forth specific factors a judge must consider while others offer general principles. Generally speaking, judges are likely to consider the parenting competence of each parent, any history of abuse, a child's attachment to each parent, and the child's adjustment to her home environment.
Gender and Custody
For decades, women received children in custody cases unless deemed unfit. States have now abolished any explicit gender preference with many states incorporating gender neutral clauses into their child custody laws. In a few states, judges still use the tender years doctrine. This standard dictates that very young children should go to their mother. In most states, this doctrine is more of an implicit assumption by judges rather than a specific law since judges are permitted to consider a child's age when deciding custody.
All states have child support laws based on a child's needs and parents' income. Typically, parents must complete a child support worksheet determining how much each parent must pay. If only one parent has custody of the child, the non-custodial parent will typically be the parent paying child support. Each state has an enforcement agency that pursues parents who do not pay child support. Non-payment of child support can subject a parent to wage garnishment and even imprisonment.
Guardians Ad Litem
A guardian ad litem is a person -- usually a lawyer or social worker -- appointed to represent the best interests of a child in contentious custody cases. Most states have laws permitting the appointment of a guardian ad litem. The guardian interviews the child and parents, files motions on the child's behalf, if necessary, and makes recommendations to the judge regarding custody and visitation.
Therapy and Evaluations
Most states have laws allowing judges to order families or individuals to undergo therapy. Judges may also order psychiatric evaluations of one or both parents and require them to receive treatment prior to receiving custody of, or visitation with, their children. In some states, judges are permitted to select court-appointed experts -- usually psychologists -- to evaluate the case and make recommendations.