When separating parents are unable to reach an agreement out of court about how they will care for their children, the matter may have to be resolved by a judge in family court. The judge will consider the specific circumstances of the case and will grant child custody and parenting time in the way that he or she believes will be most beneficial to the child's welfare and happiness.
The judge may consider any relevant factors in determining what arrangement is in the child's best interest. Factors that bear on the decision may include, among others:
- The strength of the existing bonds between each parent and the child
- Each parent's ability to provide for the child's needs
- The safety of each parent's home environment
- The child's relationship with siblings in either parent's home
- The child's preference, especially if over the age of 14
Even where only one parent has legal custody - the authority to make major decisions affecting the child's welfare - the court will almost always award parenting time to the other parent. In fact, the courts consider it so important for a child to maintain both parental relationships that parenting time will be granted to each parent unless one poses an overt danger to the child.
Even where safety is a concern, for instance if one parent has violent tendencies or is mentally unstable, the court often will grant parenting time to that parent in the form of supervised visitation. This arrangement allows the child to continue a relationship with that parent in a safe and supervised environment. Depending on the circumstances, the supervisor may be someone known to the parties, such as a grandparent of the child, or it may be a court-appointed security guard.
Ending a marriage or a long-term relationship can be an extremely difficult process, particularly when children are involved. Understandably, many people in this situation wish that they could avoid future interactions with their former spouse. Nevertheless, because of the court's strong presumption that both parents will get parenting time, it is often necessary for parents to maintain a certain minimal level of contact and cooperation with one another.