Courts often are called on to make child custody decisions, but more states are requiring parents to be involved in the process. Some states mandate mediation, while others order parents to formulate plans or take parenting classes. Parents are in the best position to weigh the many considerations that go into custody decisions and anticipate the reactions and needs of their child.
Most U.S. judges use a standard that gives the "best interests of the child" highest priority when deciding custody issues. Almost every state has a list of factors that judges consider when determining the best interests of a child. Courts try to decide which parent is more fit to care for the children by examining each parent’s financial and psychological fitness, moral conduct, relationship with the child and living situation, among many other things. Psychologists and family counselors often advise parents to consider the same factors when developing a custody plan during a breakup.
Sole custody and joint custody are the primary custody arrangements. In the typical sole custody arrangement one parent has primary legal and physical custody of the child, meaning the child lives with that parent most of the time and that parent makes most of the decisions regarding the child. The non-custodial parent usually has specified periods of visitation with the child. In a joint custody arrangement, the parents share decision-making responsibilities and the child usually divides her time between the parents. Split custody refers to a situation in which there are multiple children and one or some of the children reside primarily with one parent, while other children reside primarily with the other parent. This situation is rare.
A detailed visitation plan helps couples avoid conflicts that inevitably arise when two separate families emerge following a breakup. Parents often agree to arrangements such as every other weekend and one night per week for the non-custodial parent. Holidays, birthday and school breaks are alternated in many custody arrangements. Circumstances in which the visitation will take place are usually agreed upon as well. Some people have restrictions on the people who may be in the home when the child is also there such as new boyfriends or dangerous relatives. In extreme circumstances, a non-custodial parent may be restricted to supervised visitation.
Courts generally set child support based on the assets of the parents and the needs of the child at the time of the divorce. Insurance coverage is increasingly a part of the equation. When there is a change in circumstances, such as a job loss or serious childhood illness, the parents might have to ask the court to recalculate the support. However, parents can specify what method they will use to determine when a change is necessary if they can agree on a plan. It may be by petitioning the court or through mediation.
Often neither a court order nor a parenting agreement addresses the possibility of one parent moving, particularly to another state. One parent may strongly object to the move but have no recourse. Visitation and transportation become immediate concerns. Jurisdiction becomes an issue if the parent with primary custody moves; the parents might have to travel to the state where the custody was ordered if they need to seek changes in the custody agreement, according the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction And Enforcement Act of 1997.