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During a divorce, one of your primary concerns is when you will have your children. Whether you are a mother or a father, the best interests of the children are probably at the top of your priority list. If you have been divorced for a while or if you were never married, you might have a custody agreement that now needs to change for one reason or another. Knowing some of the child custody rules and guidelines can help you meet your children’s needs while making the process as smooth as possible. Read on for some tips on following the child custody rules.


Child Custody Rules: Physical vs. Legal Custody

There are two types of child custody: physical and legal. While many separated couples share both types of custody, other times, the types of custody differ. For example, you might have physical custody of your children, which means the kids live with you and have visitation (perhaps every other weekend or three days per week) with your ex. Even if this is the case, your ex might have equal say in where the children go to school and might have the equal right to pursue medical treatment for the kids or to weigh in on whether they should go to a daycare center or have in-home childcare. This means that you share legal custody. Other times, one parent will have full legal custody and the children will only have visitation with the other parent.

Sometimes parents confuse the two child custody rules, so it’s important to be aware of which type of custody you are talking about when you have custody discussions or disagreements. It’s also important to keep in mind that even if you have joint custody, you won’t necessarily have your children 50 percent of the time. The way that visitation works is geared toward the best interest of the children, and oftentimes kids live with one parent throughout the school-week to avoid disruption.


Factors Taken Into Account

There are some factors that are taken into account when applying child custody rules. The primary consideration is what is in the best interests of the children. If the children have had a close relationship with both parents, then in most cases, both parents will have ample time with the kids. On the other hand, if one parent has been absent or there are issues of abuse or neglect, this will be taken into consideration.

The judge will want to know whether one or both parents can care for themselves and the children financially, if they have a safe place to live with the children, if they can be emotionally supportive, and whether there is additional familial support. If the kids are old enough, they might be given a chance to express their preferences as to which parent they will live with most of the time. The age that children are deemed old enough to contribute their opinion or to make their own decisions depends on the state and, in some cases, the judge.


Guardian Ad Litem

During a custody disagreement, the court might require that a guardian ad litem, or GAL, become involved. This is often a lawyer, but sometimes a person who has a background in social work, counseling, or education. The individual’s job is to observe how each parent interacts with the children. The GAL might also interview and meet with extended family members, romantic interests of either parent, and others who know the children and the family well. Once he or she has enough information, they’ll provide a report to the court. This report is usually taken heavily into consideration by the judge before making a final decision on custody.


Making Changes to the Custody Agreement

If you and your ex decide that you’d like to change your custody agreement, you might be able to agree on what needs to change. In this case, simply meeting with a legal professional can allow you to make the changes without going through court. If you disagree, however, you might need additional legal counsel. A legal program or service can help you find resources and save you money if you cannot afford to hire individual lawyers.


Developing a Parenting Plan

Part of many custody agreements is the development of a parenting plan. This is not always legally binding, but it is a document that can be filed with the court. It lays out expectations on both sides so that there is less of a chance of a misunderstanding later. A parenting plan will often spell out which parent will have the children at various times, including weekends, school breaks, birthdays, and holidays.

Other items on the parenting plan can include what childcare services will be used, whether one parent should have the chance to have the child rather than the other parent hiring a babysitter, and parenting ideals such as dietary requirements, discipline methods, and how media such as the Internet and movies will be controlled by the parents. Keep in mind that each parent will have his or her own way of doing things and that not every couple will be able to agree on these ideals. Most children will adjust well to having different rules at different houses.

Once custody and a parenting plan have been decided on, it’s not always a cut-and-dried topic. As the children grow and move on from full-time daycare to preschool to school, visitation might change. One parent or the other might decide to relocate. One or both parents might get remarried. The children might grow into teenagers who want to live with the parent other than the one who has had primary physical custody. Or they might want more visitation with the parent who has, to that point, only had them every other weekend. It’s important to be amenable to making and accepting changes along the way. Remember that the goal of child custody arrangements is always to act in the best interests of the children, and those interests might change over time.

We understand that navigating the legal intricacies of a divorce and child custody rules is tough, however you can consider family law help as an option to help you better represent yourself.


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