Under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, both parents have a right to practice religion or not practice religion as they see fit. A judge is not supposed to make value judgments about whether a child is better off with or without religious training or about which religion is better. If a child has been brought up with particular religious beliefs and religious activities are important to the child, a court might favor promoting continuity in the child’s life, but the court should not favor religion per se.
In some cases, a parent’s unusual or non-mainstream religious activities may become an issue. Normally, a court should not consider a parent’s unusual religious practices in deciding custody or visitation unless specific harm to the child is shown. If, because of a parent’s religious beliefs, a parent has not given the child needed medical care or has tried to convince the child that the other parent is evil and should not be associated with, that could be a basis for placing custody with the parent whose religious conduct does not harm the child.
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There is no one factor that is invariably “the” most important factor in a custody case. The importance of a particular factor will vary with the facts of each case. If one parent in a custody dispute has a major problem with alcoholism or mental illness or has abused the child, that of course could be the deciding factor.
If neither parent has engaged in unusually bad conduct, the most important factor often is which parent has been primarily responsible for taking care of the child on a day-to-day basis. Some states refer to this as the primary caretaker factor. If one parent can show that he or she took care of the child most of the time, that parent usually will be favored for custody, particularly if the child is young (under approximately eight years old).
Under the current law of almost all states, mothers and fathers have an equal right to custody. Courts are not supposed to assume that a child is automatically better off with the mother or the father. In a contested custody case, both the father and mother have an equal burden of proving to the court that it is in the best interest of the child that the child be in his or her custody.
There are a few states (mostly in the South) that have laws providing that if everything else is equal, the mother may be preferred; but in those states, many fathers have been successful in obtaining custody, even if the mother is a fit parent.
In some states, courts say that mothers and fathers are to be considered equally, but the courts then go on to hold that it is permissible to consider the age or sex of the child when deciding custody. That usually translates to a preference for mothers if the child is young or female. But, again, it is possible for fathers in those states to gain custody, even when the mother is fit.
Child custody is the right and duty to care for a child on a day-to-day basis and to make major decisions about the child.
In sole custody arrangements, one parent takes care of the child most of the time and makes major decisions about the child. That parent usually is called the custodial parent. The other parent generally is referred to as the noncustodial parent. The noncustodial parent almost always has a right of visitation a right to be with the child, including for overnight visits and vacation periods.
In joint custody arrangements, both parents share in making major decisions, and both parents also might spend substantial amounts of time with the child.
A question often arises on the effect of joint custody on child support. The effect of joint custody will depend on the nature of the joint custody arrangement. If the parents have joint legal custody (by which they share making major decisions regarding the child), that by itself will have little effect on child support. If the parents have only joint legal custody, one parent still has primary custody of the child and handles payment of most of the child’s day-to-day expenses. The custodial parent’s expenses for the child have not been reduced by the joint custody arrangement.
If the parents have joint physical custody, with the child spending a substantial amount of time with each parent, and if the parents have approximately equal incomes, it is possible neither parent will have to pay support to the other. The father and mother will pay the child’s day-to-day expenses when the child is in their respective homes. The parents, however, will need to coordinate payments on major expenses such as camp, school, clothing, and insurance.
The laws relating to custody emphasize the best interest of the children. Both natural and adoptive parents may not ordinarily be denied custody unless there is gross parental unfitness.
There are numerous factors considered by the court in making custody and visitation determinations. Such factors include age, physical, mental and emotional health of the child or parent, and the quality of the home environment, including continuity, stability and security in the child’s home. Other factors that are considered include the primary caretaker status of a parent (which may not necessarily override other factors), whether a parent has made unfounded allegations of abuse, and the recognition (or lack thereof) of the importance that a child have a relationship with the non-custodial parent (alienation). Custody is not awarded after a child has attained the age of eighteen. (Note, however, that the statutory “cut-off” for child support, absent other agreement of the parents, is twenty-one years of age). When custody is contested, the court may appoint an “attorney for the child” (formerly called a “law guardian”) to represent the child(ren). This person is a lawyer who will interview the children (if age appropriate) and represent the child(ren)’s wishes to the court. If the child is of a young age this person is required to make a recommendation to the court concerning the custody arrangement.
The most common forms of custody are sole custody, which gives one parent authority to make all decisions, and joint custody, which often refers to parental sharing of major decisions concerning child rearing. Legal custody refers to the authority of one or both parents to make decisions as to the child’s health, education, welfare and other interests. Physical custody describes the physical residence of the child. For example, one parent may have sole physical custody while the parents have joint legal custody. Regardless of the custody label, parents have great latitude to determine a custody arrangement by entering into a written custody
WHO FILES A PETITION TO TERMINATE A PARENT’S RIGHTS?
ACS or the foster care agency may in some circumstances file a petition asking the court to terminate (end) a parent’s legal rights to a child so that the child may be adopted.
WHAT ARE A PARENT’S LEGAL RIGHTS?
The rights that the child protective agency seeks to terminate include the parent’s right to custody, to raise the child, to make religious, educational, or medical decisions for the child, to visit with the child, to speak with the child, to contact the child, and to learn about the child.
WHO MUST BE NOTIFIED ABOUT THE PETITION?
The mother must be served with the petition and a summons. If the child’s parents are or were married, then the agency must also serve the father.
WHAT IS AN ORDER OF CUSTODY?
An order of custody gives responsibility for the child’s care, control, and maintenance to one or both of the child’s parents or to another party. The court may not decide issues of custody and visitation if the child is 18 years or older.
WHO MAY FILE A PETITION FOR AN ORDER OF CUSTODY?
A person who has an interest in a child’s well-being and has some connection or relationship with the child may file a petition in the Family Court requesting that the court place the child in his or her custody. The petition should be filed in the county in which the child resides, so long as the child as been residing in the state for the past six (6) months. A copy of the petition and a summons must be delivered personally to (served on) the person or parties who have custody of the child. If the child’s parents are separated and one parent seeks a custody order, that parent must have the papers served on the other parent. If a non-parent is seeking custody of the child, then both the child’s parents must be served.