Child Custody

Child custody involves determination of how parents make important decisions about their children, where children primarily reside, how parents share time with their children, and how parents share the cost of providing for their children’s financial needs. Maryland requires divorcing parents to each complete a co-parenting seminar about the emotional and developmental impacts of divorce on children, and to either negotiate and file a joint parenting plan of or file a Joint Statement detailing their disagreements regarding parenting plans prior to trial.

Decision-making (Legal Custody)

Parents’ ability to communicate is key to shared decision-making, especially about medical and mental health care, education, religious training and extracurricular activities. Ideally, divorcing parents should place their children’s best interests ahead of their own in making decisions about sharing time with each parent, their education and outside activities, letting kids be kids. The most important factor courts consider in making custody determinations is whether the parents are capable of communicating and reaching shared decisions in their children’s best interests.

Parenting Time (Physical Custody)

In deciding how much time children spend with each of their parents, and perhaps which parent will have primary physical custody (where a child spends most of his time), courts evaluate the relative fitness of each parent to meet the children’s needs, weighing numerous factors, including:

  • each parent’s psychological, physical and financial capabilities to support their child’s developmental needs;
  • age and number of children;
  • geographic proximity of parental homes;
  • potential disruption of a child’s social and school life;
  • demands of parental employment;
  • relationship established between the parent and child; and
  • the expressed preference of a child of suitable age and discretion.

In a contested case the Court may appoint an independent child custody lawyer as a “child advocate” or “best interest attorney” to investigate and advocate for the child’s interest, protecting the child from the trauma of testifying in Court. Where a child is in counseling, the Court may also appoint a “child privilege attorney” to interview his or her counselor to determine whether to waive the child’s psychotherapist-patient privilege.

Negotiated Parenting Plans

Detailed parenting schedules clarifying routine weekly overnights with each parent and allocation of family holidays and vacations can avoid friction between divorced parents which is harmful to children. Since courts generally defer to negotiated parenting agreements, I often refer clients to consult with mediators or neutral parenting coordinators (psychologists or social workers) to facilitate difficult negotiations.

Predictable parenting schedules should be designed and implemented with the children’s best interests in mind, and must be flexible to accommodate their evolving developmental needs. For example, where both parents are equally available and the child manages transitions adequately, preschoolers may move easily between households on an alternating semi-weekly schedule, and may graduate to alternating weekly schedules in elementary school. However, where one parent is less available due to work responsibilities, it may be healthier for the children to live primarily with the other parent, allowing the non-residential parent regular weekend overnight visitation and occasional mid-week dinners. However, as children mature into teens their schedules change; a child may develop special educational or emotional needs to be addressed; either party may remarry and adopt or conceive new siblings; or a party may seek to relocate outside of the community where the parties’ divorced. Any of these major changes in circumstances affecting a child’s connection with both parents may be grounds for a modification of custody.