Child custody is the determination by a court which parent will be legally be solely responsible for the care, control, and maintenance for a child. In Utah, this ruling may be made during divorce proceedings, in a separate case, as part of separation maintenance, or temporary separation, annulment, parentage adoption, neglect and dependency, and termination of parental rights. Generally, child custody is determined by Utah’s divorce statuses whether or not the parents were or had ever been married. Most orders determine which parent will be awarded custody, but the court may award custody to a third adult, such as a grandparent or relative. Depending on the type of case, a child custody order may be determined by the district court or a juvenile court.
Child custody can be complicated and frustrating. For many people, it may be the most difficult part of the divorce proceedings. While not all court rulings may seem entirely fair to either parties, the court of Utah’s responsibility is to consider a child’s welfare before the emotional and financial interests of either parent. Keep in mind, also, that once a decision has been made by Utah trial courts regarding custody of children, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change later.
Types of Custody
Courts are primarily concerned with two parts of custody:
- Physical custody: defined as where the child will live and with whom the child will live with.
- Legal custody: defined as the rights and duties of each parent regarding the child’s physical care, support, education and other parental rights, privileges, duties, and powers.
Depending on an array of circumstances, the court will determine a combination of custody that it deems most suitable for the children. Joint legal custody is typically determined to be in the child’s best interests. There are four main types of custody that the court will determine. These include:
- Joint legal and joint physical custody: with this arrangement, the child or children will live with both parents at different times for at least 111 nights out of the year. Both parents have shared responsibility in making decisions regarding the child or children. These issues may include, among others, which school the child will attend, which religion (if any) the child will worship in, medical treatment and procedures, the child’s financial situation, permission to join the military, and so forth. This arrangement is ideal if both parents communicate well and are open and honest in their interactions, and are willing to work together. This arrangement also works best if both parents reside within the same state or within a short distance of each other.
- Sole legal and sole physical: in this arrangement, one parent or the other is awarded custody of the child or children. The child or children will live with that parent, and that parent will be responsible for all legal decisions made in regard for the life of that child or children. In this situation, the non-custodial parent may be awarded parent time, also known as visitation rights. See (insert link to parent time here) for more details.
According to some law professionals, Utah courts tend to determine that this arrangement is in the best interest for the children. For parents who would like to see and experience the growth and maturity of their child or children, this can be a bitter and painful ruling, and very difficult to reverse. The best option for anyone who would like to be there and experience the growth of the child or children is consult with professional legal representation.
- Joint legal and sole physical: this arrangement is defined as the ability and responsibility of both parents to determine important decisions regarding the child or children, but only one parent is awarded physical custody of the child. The child or children live with the custodial parent for over 225 nights per year, while the non-custodial parent may be granted parent time.
- Split custody: this is an arrangement for multiple children in which one parent is awarded physical custody of at least one child. Legal custody of the child may or may not be shared as ordered by the court.
The standard by which the court uses to determine custody of a child is the “best interest of the child.” Of course, this will not always be perfect or ideal, nor will either parent be 100% satisfied with the ruling. The court’s duty is to determine what the child’s best interest is and rule accordingly rather than what the parent’s best interests and wishes might be.
The court uses a number of factors in determining the best interest of a child in a custody dispute. They include, but not limited to, as follows:
- The moral standards and conduct of both parents;
- Determining which parent is more likely to act in the best interest of the child;
- Determining which parent is more likely to allow frequent and continuing contact with the other parent in regards to joint custody or parent time.
- The quality of the relationship between the potential custodial parent and the child.
The judge may ask a child which parent he/she prefers to live with, but the desires of the child are not binding, particularly if they are contrary to the courts findings based on the general criteria above.
To determine joint and legal custody of a child, the court will consider the following factors:
- The most beneficial circumstances for the child’s physical, psychological and emotional needs of the child’s development;
- The parents’ ability to prioritize the child’s welfare;
- The capability of either parent of encouraging a positive relationship between the child and the other parent;
- The amount of involvement of either parent in raising the child before separation;
- Distance and proximity between parents homes;
- The preference of the child;
- The ability of the parents to act in a mature and calm manner, or to cooperate and work together;
- The ability of both parents to make joint decisions;
- History of violence, abuse, or criminal activity;
- Any other factors the court may find relevant.
Changing custody status
As stated above it may be difficult or impossible to change the custody status of children. Of course living situations may change, values of the parents may change, or information may come to fruition that was not previously accessible. In any number of these types of scenarios, the court may consider changing the custody status of the child or children.
If this is the case, a party may request a custody evaluation prepared by a professional evaluator. This may be costly, and the expense will be split between both parties.
Resolving parental conflicts
In situation where there is joint legal custody of a child or children, there may arise a conflict in decision between parents. In these situations, there may be need for an intervention by an outside objective party. Both parties may ask for the assistance of a parent coordinator, or a parent coordinator may be assigned by the court without the stipulation of either parent. A parent coordinator is a mental health professional who specializes in child development. This person examines the situation or dispute with the best interest of the child in mind, then offers advice based on the needs of the child. A parent coordinator may also offer advice and plans on how future conflicts and disputes pertaining to legal decisions for the child may be resolved. Parents have no obligation to follow the advice of the parent coordinator, and all consultations are confidential.