Children are truly a blessing. A good parent would do everything in their power to protect and provide for them. But what about if the parents disagree about their children’s upbringing? What happens after a divorce? Or in cases of abuse and abandonment? These all can be frightening situations, but rest assured, there is a safe and legal way of handling disputes. The lawyers of Bours & Lucero are committed to upholding the best interest of children under all circumstances.
Types of Child Custody
Maryland courts distinguish between a few kinds of child custody:
- Legal Custody – This is where the parent or guardian has legal ability to make decisions regarding the child’s educational, spiritual, and recreational well-being.
- Full Legal Custody – With full legal custody, you do not have to consult the other parent before making long-term changes to your child’s future (such as schooling, sports, religious activities, medical care, etc.)
- Joint Legal Custody – On the other hand, you may be ordered to share responsibility and need to put differences aside to come to a decision together for the child’s future. If they still cannot agree, a judge may grant one parent “tie-breaking” power, where they cannot have final say in conflicts.
- Physical / Residential Custody – This form of custody means the child physically lives and spends time with that parent or guardian. If one guardian has sole physical custody, the court may grant the other visitation rights.
- Joint Physical Custody – If in the best interest of the child, the court may decide that both parents may both have physical custody. This split may mean 50/50 time between parent, but it can vary. Legally, sole physical custody becomes shared when one houses the child more than 35% of the time (or 128 days a year). In practice, this usually means one parent has the child during the school months and the other during summer, or one on weekdays with the other having custody on weekends.
The court may also determine split custody for parents of multiple children, meaning some children are given custody to the mother and other to the father.
Determining Legal Custody in a Dispute
Maryland, like the majority of the states, does not have one answer for who has legal custody of a child. Instead, custody is determined by the principle “what is best for the child.” Often emotional disputes can erupt, and parents can, sadly, use their children to manipulate their partner, which can result in physical abuse. In these sorts of situations, it’s best to seek legal counsel, rather than responding to escalate the conflict. However, in all legal battles, the state does not favor the father or the mother for custody but considers a multitude of facets regarding the welfare of the child, including:
- Physical health of the parents
- Moral and community standing of the parents
- How long the parents have been separated
- How far apart the parents live
- Any history of abandonment or abuse of their children
- The child’s preference (if child is over 16 years old, they can petition the court themselves)
- The employment status of both parents
- The parents’ ability to cooperate and commit to a plan
- The age, health, and sex of the child
- The effect the custody will have on the social-emotional and educational well-being of the child.
Usually, all of these factors are weighed equally by the court system, but every case gets filed under special circumstances.
You should consult your lawyer for how to best proceed in your situation. We recommended that you diligently document any history of abuse by hiring a child psychologist or other qualified professionals who can testify in court. Unless one parent is legally deemed unfit, both parents are assumed to work together to provide the best care of the child.
Shared time with children when parents do not have joint physical custody (35% time or 128 days) is known as visitation. Parents may informally agree upon this time, but it is usually best to seek a kind of mediator, whether an attorney or marital counselor, to set an established legal arrangement.
Refusing to return a child or removing them from the state of Maryland for more than 48 hours past the agreed visitation time may result in a contempt of court charge. Many parents have a lenient visitation schedule, but if the well-being of your child is a concern, you should keep times and dates logged in agreed documentation.
If anyone violates a custody agreement, this can be considered a misdemeanor (less than a year in prison) abduction charge or a felony (more than a year in prison) if they remove the child from the state.
It’s possible the court may grant supervised visitation where the parent cannot visit alone and usually at a specified place, such as one of the many supervised visitation centers.
Maryland rarely gives custody or visitation rights to convicted felons and automatically withholds parental rights in cases of 1st and 2nd-degree murder.
Child Custody and Other Relatives
The natural parents are automatically considered the primary caregivers, but when both parents are found unfit to give adequate care or in special cases, judges may grant full or partial custody and visitation rights to grandparents, aunts, and uncles, or others. Other relatives besides the biological parents can petition the court for custody at any time.
Paying Child Support
Every child deserves support from both parents. When a couple legally decides to separate, the state may be needed to mediate and determine a reasonable arrangement for paying for the requirements of the child, including food, clothing, medication, and continuing education.
Before proceeding to court, there are several estimating calculators available online, and you must file and mail the appropriate worksheets with the state, whether you have joint or sole custody. These will document an official record of your income and expense for a judge to consider.
Most of the logistics of paying support can found (and paid online) through The Maryland Child Support Administration website. You may also choose to send a money order or check payment to P.O. Box 17396, Baltimore, Maryland 21297-1396. If your employment status or you are otherwise are unable to make payments, you can petition at any time the court system to have your legal order modified. You’ll need to contact your attorney (or choose to represent yourself) and provide the necessary work and medical documentation. Unless modified, you are legally obliged to provide payments until the child reaches 18 and graduates high school.
Failing to pay child support on time when you are financially able to can result in a judge finding you in contempt of court and incarcerating you. In such cases, Maryland will also automatically suspend your state driver’s license.
Child Custody Battles with Unmarried Couples
If there is a legal child custody dispute and the couple is not married, then the court automatically grants full custody rights to the mother, unless the father can establish parentage, usually through genetic testing. If a judge determines both are biologically the legal parents or the couple get married, then in a dispute neither man or woman are given preference.
Going to court for child custody disputes is not always best. Some parent fear taking legal action will drive emotions of fear and anger to cause more physical and psychological fights. It’s never an easy issue to handle legally, and many cannot handle the hassle and financial cost of court cases. Except for cases of significant abuse, try to exhaust all your other options first.
No matter what your situation, the lawyers of Bours & Lucero will always give confidential and caring legal advice to ensure best your children are given the proper love and attention they deserve.