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. Effective January 1, 2020, divorcing parents will be required by Maryland law to complete a co-parenting seminar about the emotional and developmental impacts of divorce on children, and to jointly develop and submit to the Court a detailed parenting plan that fosters constructive co-parenting.
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 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 encourage clients to collaborate in developing parenting plans using software to track actual parenting time and expenses. In some cases I may also refer clients to consult with mediators or neutral parenting coaches (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. Of course, as children become teenagers, parental visitation routines will evolve to accommodate the children’s schedules and preferences.