Introduction to Child Custody: A Guide for Parents

When parents end their relationship, determining who gets the children is one of the most important decisions they will have to make.  Legal custody of a child means having the right and obligation to make decisions regarding the child’s upbringing. These may include schooling, religion, medical care and lifestyle choices.  When the parents cannot make this decision without a dispute, allegations against their spouse or partner are widespread in the effort to win custody.  False accusations of child abuse (emotional, physical and sexual), financial and/or educational incompetency and substance abuse are common claims made by one parent against the other.

With the recent advances of technology, courts are now having to deal with decisions regarding unborn children.  In several recent custody cases, couples have fought over the custody of frozen embryos.  Fertilized embryos contain the genetic material of both the mother and the father.  Based on the history of case law, the mother frequently wins this fight.  However, the father is given the right to not pay child support in certain instances.  The most recent case law on the legal status of frozen embryos is that either genetic parent has an absolute right to prevent implantation of any frozen embryo.

Divorce and/or Separation and Child Custody

Dealing with child custody and visitation is one of the most difficult aspects when getting divorced or separated.  The court of jurisdiction for the divorce proceedings will also determine child custody arrangements.  If the parents have children together while married, they have joint guardianship over that child and their rights are equal.  They both have an equal right to custody when they separate.  If the parents are unable to reach a custody agreement, the court must help to determine what is best for the child.  In some cases, the court may order a psychological examination of one or both of the parents.  This is often referred to as a parenting evaluation which is a formal investigation to asses the level of each parent’s parenting skills and which parent may be best suited to care for the child.

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