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How do family law courts determine legal child custody?

Although divorcing couples may want to minimize courtroom drama, the subject of child custody might be a sticking point. An attorney that focuses on divorce and child custody might have strategies for avoiding this deadlock.

For example, parents may not realize that legal custody is not defined by where a child resides. Rather, legal custody refers to which parent has the authority to make decisions about the child's fundamental needs, such as health and education. Physical custody, in contrast, refers to the physical presence a child will have with a parent.

Most family law judges recognize that both parents can contribute to a child's emotional and developmental needs. For that reason, both parents might have nearly equal parenting time with a child, even if only has been awarded legal custody.

An attorney can help parents negotiate through this process. However, a court's decision to award joint legal custody might be influenced by how well divorcing parents can get along with each other. Joint legal custody would require both parents to agree on a child's fundamental needs, and deadlock between parents would ultimately only hurt a child. To avoid that possibility, a court might favor awarding sole legal custody but joint physical custody.

In making a legal custody determination, a court may make specific inquiries into the type of home environment that each parent can offer the child. That inquiry may examine the financial, emotional and time resources of each parent. For example, a parent with a demanding work schedule that requires frequent on-call or evening shifts might be viewed as a less desirable environment than a parent whose schedule permits more presence with children.

Source: Huffington Post, "The 18 Best Things You Can Do For Your Kids After Divorce," Brittany Wong, Feb. 17, 2015

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