In general, custody in Virginia is defined as the legal responsibility for the care and control of a child under the age of 18. Joint legal custody is when both parents share in making major decisions affecting their child's life, including medical care, education and religious training. Joint physical custody is when a child lives with each parent for a significant period of time. If there is no court order in place, both parents have equal physical rights to their child, regardless of whether they are married.
If you're awarded sole custody by the court, you are granted both legal and physical custody, giving you the power to make all major decisions about your child's life. Your child also will live with you and you will be his legal caretaker. However, unless your ex-spouse has been abusive or is otherwise unfit, which may result in a complete termination of his parental rights, he likely will retain visitation rights. The court can specify when and where the visits take place and whether they must be supervised.
To obtain sole custody if there is no court order for custody already in place, you must file a Petition for Custody with the court services unit of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Generally, you'll file in the county court where both you and your child reside. If there already is a court order for custody in place, you must file a Motion to Amend or Review Order, generally in the court that issued the original custody order. In both instances, you must serve the other party with the appropriate paperwork. The court will schedule an initial hearing, which could result in an order of mandatory mediation, an order to appoint an attorney for your child, a psychological evaluation of the parties, or temporary custody orders.
If you and the other parent cannot reach a custody agreement following the hearing, a trial on your petition or motion request will likely take place one to three months after the initial hearing. The trial is just like you see on TV shows, with an opening statement, testimony from witnesses and a closing statement. The judge will weigh a long list of factors in deciding the custody case, including the mental condition of the parents, wishes of the child - especially an older child, any history of abuse, alcohol or drug problems, criminal convictions and any violations of previous court orders.
Child custody cases are often an anguishing ordeal for both parents and children. If you are awarded sole custody, the court retains the power to restrict your ability to leave Virginia and relocate to another state, especially if the other parent objects and convinces the court it would interfere with his parenting time, or visitation. As always, the court will consider the best interests of the child when reaching a decision on this matter and all other custody issues.