Parents entangled in a family law dispute may feel frustrated at the jargon thrown around by lawyers and family court judges. What one state calls “custody”, another might call “conservatorship”. There might be “legal custody”, “physical custody” or just “possession”. “Visitation schedules” might also be called “time sharing” or “Parenting Time”. Hearing new words without firm definitions can be maddening, especially when it comes to the well-being of your child. But rest assured – regardless of what they are called, the concepts across the nation are largely the same.
What Does Legal Custody Mean?
Legal custody comprises of the rights that each parent has to their child(ren) and the ability to make decisions on behalf of them. This includes things such as determining which school their child(ren) should attend or making important medical decisions.
Usually, parents will be able to share some form of legal custody. Most legislative systems agree with the notion that children are better off when both parents can be actively involved in their development and childhood. In some states, this is called joint or shared custody.
Sometimes, it is either not possible or not in the best interest of the child(ren) for both parents to have equal decision-making rights when it comes to the child(ren). This could be either because one of the parents is absent, or because a parent has been abusive or neglectful of the child. In those cases, usually, one parent will be awarded the primary decision-maker for the child. This is an example of sole legal custody.
What is Physical Custody?
In some states, physical custody means that one parent will be the person with whom the child(ren) primarily lives. However, joint physical custody (as with joint legal custody) is often seen as the best option. Joint physical custody means both parents will get a fairly equitable split of time with the child(ren). This will only work if the parents live fairly close to each other and are able to effectively communicate and co-parent.
In most states, custody orders will have elements of both physical and legal custody. In most cases, the parents will share aspects of raising their child(ren) and enjoy fairly equal physical possession of the child(ren) in order to minimize the disruption and drama in the child(ren)’s’ lives.
Sometimes, parents who have recently struggled with addiction might face the prospect of sole custody, depending on the circumstances. It is important to remember that custody orders can usually be modified in the future, which means that parents with addiction issues will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the court that they have made strides in addressing their dependencies and rehabilitating themselves.
For situations like this, new technology is available to help keep the parent who is struggling with addiction accountable. For example, Soberlink allows a parent to document sobriety during Parenting Time through a comprehensive alcohol monitoring system that combines a remote breathalyzer with facial recognition, tamper detection, real-time alerts and detailed reports. This technology allows the monitored parent to keep custody of the child(ren) while providing peace of mind to the other parent.
How Does the Court Determine Custody Matters?
Each state has a different list of specific items to factor into the determination of custody matters, but the primary focus is usually whatever is in the best interest of the child(ren). The court will also look at things such as the relationship between the child(ren) and the parents, the ability of the parents to co-parent, the schedules of each parent, and who has done the primary caretaking of the child(ren).
What is Time Sharing?
Time-sharing is just what it sounds like: the amount of time the parents share with their child(ren). It can be called possession or visitation, and it is almost always based on a schedule. In many cases, the courts of most states will have some kind of standard time-sharing schedule.
Judges usually encourage the parents of the child(ren) to work together on coming up with a more customized schedule that works best for the family. Sometimes, this can mean the children spend every other week with each parent. Other times, the children will just swap weekends. If one parent works shift work, then it may make more sense for the parents to have a possession schedule which reflects this reality.
Other factors, like the child’s age, interests, or any special needs, should also be considered. An infant who is breastfeeding will likely need to spend more time with its mother than its father, versus a twelve-year-old who is involved in a competitive traveling sports team. Perhaps the parents live fairly far apart. In that case, the children might receive less frequent, but longer, periods of visitation with their non-custodial parent.
In cases where there are questions of abuse or serious neglect, time-sharing might also be supervised by a trusted relative or entity of the court until the parent can demonstrate that they can care for the child without observation. There is a multitude of arrangements that can be created when it comes to time-sharing schedules in a family law matter.
When coming up with time-sharing plans, you should always consult with an experienced family lawyer.
About the Author
Danielle Prado, an experienced family lawyer licensed in Texas, England, and Wales.