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Most people don’t have a working knowledge of child custody cases tucked away. This process may feel like a mountain with a cloud-covered tip. Terms like “sole custody,” “joint custody,” “primary physical custody,” and “custodial time” don’t have to send you into a panic. We’re ready to walk you through this new leg of your journey.

Where do I start?

First zero in on the reason child custody is an important part of your focus right now—your child. At its core, child custody exists to ensure the well-being of the children involved. When youngsters retain this central spot throughout proceedings, they’re surrounded not by uncertainty but by stability. Their emotional well-being takes top priority; and any adverse long-term impacts of divorce become a distant concern at most.

What’s next?

So, take a deep breath and understand one more thing: As one of two adults leading this new family dynamic, you set the tone for your child’s future. Approach each new hurdle with positivity and an even temper instead of lashing out in anger. As a result your child learns how to best approach difficulties in his or her life.

Is this a big deal?

“Is this really a big deal?”

“Do I even need to go through all this?”

These are common questions we hear. The answer is simply, “Yes!”

Without a binding custody agreement or court-ordered custody, your child becomes quite vulnerable. Specifically, either parent could move the child across town, across the state, or across the country without consent at any point. This breeds panic for you and instability in a child’s life.

Typically, child custody isn’t a big issue. In the majority of cases, an agreement between the parents negates the need for a court hearing.

Custody schedules do take many forms. Sometimes the child stays with one parent most of the time; however, parents may also split time.

What does all this mean?

Let’s dive right in to what you can expect as you swim through custody agreements and hearings.

Legal jargon shouldn’t be a noose. Often parents reach those terms we mentioned earlier and become hung up in an attempt to define them. Your final written agreement will define those terms. A determination of whatever arrangement best fits your family situation creates this agreement.

Joint vs. Sole Physical Custody: Simply put, your written agreement will spell out when your child is with which parent. If you share custody of the child with the other parent, then you have “joint physical custody.” If the child stays with only one parent, then you have “sole physical custody.” As you can tell, variations and specifications exist with each choice. Your agreement will fill in all the details of what either will mean for you. We will walk you through each and every aspect of that.

In a nutshell, the “primary” parent is the one with whom the child lives most of the time. In a sole custody situation, the primary parent makes most or all of the decisions for the child. The exact details depend on how the written agreement explains decision-making roles. The secondary parent would have less time when the child lives in his or her house. Instead this parent has a set visitation schedule.

Joint vs. Sole Legal Custody: Simply put, your written agreement will spell this out. Joint legal custody allows both of you to share decisions (such as school and medical decisions) for the child. Sole legal custody permits one parent to make most or all of the decisions. Your agreement will fill in the details of exactly what either will mean for you. You can be sure we will walk you through each step.

Here comes the judge: If your custody case comes before a judge, he or she will consider many factors. A judge’s decision rests on the “best interests of the child,” as her or she sees it. A few of these considerations are:

  • The mental and physical well-being of each parent;
  • The extent of each parent’s role in care-taking up to this point;
  • The relationship the child has with each parent;
  • The child’s age;
  • Each parent’s available time for the child and ability to care for the child;
  • Siblings and their relationships with each parent;
  • Religious factors;
  • Each parent’s willingness to work together and communicate for the good of the child;
  • Each parent’s relationships with other adults;
  • More serious issues: abuse, neglect, drug and alcohol addictions; and
  • The child’s preference: This is a judge-specific consideration. The decision-making focus remains the child’s best interest, even when the child gets older.

What’s visitation anyway? Visitation is the scheduled time the secondary parent will spend with the child. Here is a typical visitation example in North Carolina: The secondary parent has the child every other weekend; one night (either overnight or for dinner) during the week; half of all annual holidays; and any special days such as birthdays, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Your written agreement will set all of this out in a clear manner with the schedule that works best for your situation.

Exceptions to the “rules”: Some judges lean toward allowing longer periods of visitation or more frequent visitation. Other judges believe less disruption to a child’s daily routine to be best—especially during the child’s early years. Only in cases of danger to the child or other unusual issues will a judge deny visitation rights to the secondary parent. Even in some special circumstances, a judge allows supervised visitations in a safe location. This type of visitation may change over time as situations change.

Take the stand: If your custody enters a court setting, witnesses can be your allies. Family members, teachers, friends, neighbors, doctors, and your child’s other caregivers could be witnesses in your custody hearing. The best witnesses for you are people who have seen you with your child often and over time. These witnesses speak with you regularly about your child and your relationship with him or her.

What now?

Now, take a breath and know that you are not alone. This process doesn’t have to be long or burdensome. Remember child custody is frequently determined through a written agreement decided upon by both parents and never goes to court. Sometimes agreements aren’t reached; and a judge has to decide. If you tried to reach an agreement but couldn’t, or you do have a court date set, you have a few more things to consider.

How do I best position myself?

When it comes to a question of custody or frequency of visitation, being an involved parent speaks volumes for you. Likewise, conversing with potential witnesses in your custody hearing helps them understand your heart for your child. You can also gather photos and videos of your time with your child to share with the judge. As a result he or she glimpses what living with you would be like. Photos of your child’s room and play spaces give the judge a visual of the child’s life with you.

What about therapy?

Usually parents hear advice to seek counseling and/or a mental health professional’s help during this transition. Moving from a two-parent home to a one-parent home places stress on both parents and children. Consequently this process may uncover emotional or developmental needs of the child.

What is a custody evaluation?

A custody evaluator interviews the parents separately; with the minor child; and, likely, more than once. This professional observes the child and his or her interactions with both parents. He or she speaks to other other significant people in the child’s life. Finally, the evaluator administers a series of psychological tests to complete observations. Visits to the child’s living arrangements may permit a complete observation.

This professional should be someone with no prior relationship to either parent. Division of payment between the parents for a custody evaluation varies from case to case. Requesting a custody evaluation is not an easy decision. We can further advise you on this matter as you think through all your options.

How do I move ahead?

In the end, regardless of the process of your custody case, the heart of the matter is your child. We are here to stand with you as you focus on your child’s future. Call us today to schedule a consultation, or click here to schedule a consultation online!


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