Although child custody rights are determined at the state level, certain principles are used in family law courts nationwide to settle these cases and create workable custody and visitation agreements. Whether you are currently ending a relationship with your child’s other parent or you have never been married and want to establish custody rights, these are the child custody basics you should know.
In an ideal situation, the child’s parents will come to a custody agreement outside of court. This process can be facilitated with the help of a mediator or child custody attorney. When the parents are unable to agree, the family court judge will make the custody decision based on the child’s best interest.
Many states award physical custody to the child’s primary caregiver, and visitation rights to the other parents. In this case, the parents are often granted shared legal custody, which means they both have the right to make important decisions about the child’s schooling, health care, and other critical issues.
If you were never married to the mother of your child and want to seek custody or visitation, you must first establish paternity. This can be done at the time of birth if both parents sign the birth certificate or afterward if both parents sign a document of paternity and submit it to the appropriate court or agency.
When paternity is in dispute or if the mother does not agree to affirm paternity with the court, the court can order a DNA test to establish paternity. Once this step is complete, the father may petition the court for custody or visitation.
When a child is in need of a legal guardian, grandparents or other close family members can petition the court to be named as his or her guardian. Grandparents can also seek visitation rights in most states, sometimes even when the child’s parents remain married and/or retain custody.
Because custody rights vary significantly by state, it’s important to familiarize yourself with laws in your jurisdiction if the custody of your child is disputed. Children grow up very quickly, so now is your chance to be a part if their lives by obtaining permanent, temporary, joint, or visitation custody rights before it’s too late.