Divorce often happens. In the United States, about 50% of all marriages end in divorce or separation. When a divorce involves children, an already stressful situation can become even more difficult. The best result in a child custody case is when both parents reach a friendly agreement. But, even if your divorce is amicable, when it involves your child’s custody, you should understand as much as you can about the process.
Introduction to Maryland Child Custody
Like divorce, child custody petitions are civil law cases, so the circuit courts hear them. Either parent can file a petition for child custody with the court because Maryland does not favor either parent. The court can grant custody to a single parent or custody that is shared between parents. If the parents cannot agree on the terms for child custody, the court will decide based on what it thinks is the best interest of the child. Relatives, such as grandparents, can also petition the court for child custody, but they first must meet special circumstances since the law favors the child’s natural parents.
Types of Child Custody in Maryland
Because each family situation is different, there are several legal child custody arrangements.
- Temporary custody. The courts often refer to temporary custody as “pendente lite,” which means “pending litigation.” This order grants only one parent custody before any litigation begins when the court determines that it will serve the child’s best interest. This order is usually made when the custody proceedings are contentious. However, the court does not give any weight to the parent awarded temporary custody when making its final custody determination. If you want the court to award you temporary custody, you must file a request for a hearing and an Order for Temporary Custody and Support along with your Complaint for Custody or Divorce.
- Joint custody. When both parents share custody, also called joint custody, the court can order one of three kinds:
- Joint legal. The parents share the responsibilities of raising the child and each parent has equal say in important decisions such as education and medical care. The court considers parents sharing custody, even if the child doesn’t spend equal time with each parent or lives in only one residence.
- Shared physical. The child lives with both parents equally between two separate residences, spending at least 35% of their time with each parent.
- Combination. Combination custody can mean many things depending on the situation. For example, parents each have a say in important decisions, but one parent is the “tiebreaker” when they cannot reach an agreement, or each parent has their own area(s) of decision-making authority.
- Sole Custody. One parent is granted full legal custody, full physical custody, or both.
- Split custody. When a case involves two or more children, each parent can have physical custody of one or more children. Split custody can happen when the parents’ residences are far from one another, or the child is old enough to choose one parent. Split custody usually happens because both parents agree to it. Once the parents agree, the court usually agrees. 5. Emergency custody. Emergency custody is a form of temporary custody, although not legally the same as temporary custody or pendente lite. A parent can file for emergency custody if there is an immediate risk to the parent and/or the child like the threat of violence. The court will often quickly hear a petition for emergency custody but filing procedures can vary between courts.
What are the standards for “best interest of the child?”
Even if both parents agree to a custody arrangement, the court will still determine the best result for the child. In doing so, the court might consider:
- Who is the primary caregiver, which means who is the parent mainly responsible for the child’s daily care, like feeding, clothing, and ensuring the child gets to school?
- Does either parent have any physical or psychological illnesses that may affect their ability to provide care?
- What are each parent’s character and reputation? Does one or both have a criminal record?
- Is a child custody agreement already in place? If so, does it still meet the child’s best interests?
- Which parent is best equipped to make sure the child maintains contact with other family relations?
- Which parent does the child want to have custody?
- Which parent has the more secure financial status?
- What is the child’s age, health, and gender assigned at birth? Do these factors affect which parent would be the most stable parent for their child’s continued development?
- Is the distance between the parents’ residences a factor in the continued stability of the child’s relationships and education?
The court will consider these factors and more during proceedings and when discussing parenting plans — written agreements that show how the parents will raise the child or children.
What if the parents have a joint custody agreement?
If the parents create a combination custody agreement, the court is still involved. The court will ensure that the agreement is in the best interest of the child and that both parents can maintain it. The same best interest of the child standards are applied to joint custody agreements. Once the parents reach a written agreement, they can submit a stipulation, which describes the agreement, to the court. If the judge agrees to your terms, they can then sign a consent order to make it binding.
When you discuss a joint custody agreement with the other parent, you must think about what issues could be problems in the future. For example, you both must consider where the child will spend holidays and vacations. If too many issues are left undecided, and find yourself constantly back in court, the judge may end the agreement.
What if the parents aren’t married?
When paternity is not yet decided, the court considers the child in the custody of their mother. For a father to claim custody rights, they must establish paternity. Paternity can be established through a court finding (usually requiring genetic evidence). The father can also establish paternity by acknowledging paternity in writing, telling others they are the father, or by marrying the child’s mother and both parents acknowledge the father. Once paternity is established, the court will not give the mother preference in custody proceedings.
What if the parents can’t agree on custody?
It’s in the best interests of both parents to come to a custody agreement. If an agreement can’t be reached, the parents can go through mediation. In mediation, an impartial party helps parents reach an amicable decision. The court has the power to order mediation if the parents are unable to reach an agreement. If after mediation the parents still cannot agree,
the court will then decide what is best for the child.
Need help with a child custody case?
Whether or not your child custody case is amicable, it’s important to retain legal counsel to ensure that you can navigate the complexities of family law courts. The family law attorneys at Albers & Associates are here for you, with offices in Baltimore City, Columbia, Towson, Dundalk, and Westminster. No matter the circumstances surrounding your desire or need for a custody agreement, our expert child custody lawyers will give you the legal guidance you need to ensure the best outcome for you and your child. Contact us today for a free legal consultation.