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Answers to common questions about child custody

On Behalf of | Dec 23, 2022 | Family Law |

Divorce can feel like unfamiliar territory. When you got married and had children, you did not imagine needing to decide how you would share custody if you and your spouse agreed to part ways.

Now that it is time to consider what happens with your children after a divorce, you likely have many questions about the process and what happens next.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about child custody.

Will the mother automatically get custody?

There was a time all-too-recently when courts strongly favored the mother when awarding custody. Often, it was an uphill battle for fathers who wanted custody and had a life that was more suited for raising the children.

Now, however, the situation has become more equal. When courts look at awarding custody to one parent or the other, they look at the children’s best interest rather than relying on the outdated default model to award custody to the mother.

How do courts decide where children live?

It is essential to keep in mind that deciding child custody is a collaboration between you, your ex and the court. Ideally, you and your ex are able to agree on a custody agreement. In many cases, courts will allow the agreement when parents can agree on their own since they are responsible for the day-to-day coordination of the custody agreement.

When parents cannot agree on child custody, courts will look at what is in the best interest of the child to decide how parents should share custody of their children.

What happens if we need to modify the agreement?

Depending on how old your children are when you get divorced, there is a good chance that you and your ex will reach a point when you need to re-examine your child custody agreement. There are many circumstances that could lead to a change in your custody agreement, such as:

  • Schooling changes
  • Children’s activities
  • Changes in work or childcare arrangements
  • Increases or decreases in income

When it is time to change your custody agreement, you will need to make an official modification with the court. While you and your ex may agree on a change, if there is a dispute, the court will look to enforce the last formal agreement.

What does “best interest of the child” mean?

Discussions of child custody typically involve the phrase, “best interest of the child.” However, for parents new to negotiating child custody, this can seem like a vague term. As parents, you and your ex both likely feel that you have your children’s best interest in mind, though you may still disagree on what “best interest” means.

When the court looks at the best interest of the child, they will look at factors such as:

  • Where the children attend school
  • Relationships with each parent
  • Social activities of the children
  • Relationships with siblings
  • History or reports of abuse
  • Financial resources of each parent

While some factors may carry more weight than others, courts will look at many aspects of the situation and attempt to help parents form an agreement that works for them and their children.

What happens if one parent wants to move outside Utah?

Life can be unpredictable. There are many reasons a parent may need to move outside Utah, such as a job change or seeking support from family outside the state.

Moving outside the state will require planning and coordination between both parents. When one parent wants to move out of the state, they will need to provide notice, and both parents will need to negotiate a new custody agreement.

It is crucial to keep in mind that it can be more challenging for parents to have equal parenting time when there is more distance to travel between them. Often, the parent who moves farther away tends to have less parenting time so that the child can have more consistency with their schooling and other activities.

What is the difference between custody, parent-time and visitation?

Discussions about child custody can quickly get confusing because many terms tend to be used interchangeably. When you are negotiating your child custody agreement, you will become more familiar with terms such as:

  • Physical custody. Where the child lives. There can be joint or primary physical custody, depending on whether the child lives with both parents equally or one parent more often than the other.
  • Legal custody. While a parent could have both legal and physical custody, legal custody refers specifically to the parent (or parents) who has the right to determine the child’s primary legal, medical, educational and religious directions.
  • Parent-time. Parent-time is the time the non-custodial parent spends with the child. Parents are typically entitled to a minimum amount of parent-time, even when parents have difficulty agreeing to a parenting schedule. Parent-time is often also referred to as visitation.

While these terms can get confusing, they are essential to understanding your rights as a parent and who can make certain decisions regarding your children.

Do children get a choice about which parent they live with?

One of the challenges with divorce is deciding which parent will have more time with the child and who will have physical and legal custody. In some cases, the children can get caught in the middle of two parents trying to get the child to choose them. Regardless of the child’s age, this can make their relationship with both parents difficult and cause emotional trauma.

Courts are aware of parents trying to influence their children to make certain custody choices, so when children are young (under 10), courts give very little weight to the child’s preference. As children get older, the court will give more consideration to which parent the child wants to spend more of their time with. Typically, once children are 14 years of age or older, courts become more likely to allow them to choose where they want to live.