Child custody in Arizona is called legal decision-making. Legal decision-making refers to the legal right parents have to make decisions for their children. These include important decisions like medical treatment and educational choices.
There are three types of legal decision-making parents can agree to or the court can award:
- Sole legal decision-making
- Joint legal decision-making
- Joint legal decision-making with final say
Sole legal decision-making is rarely awarded unless one parent has committed domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, or has substance abuse or other mental health issues. A parent awarded sole legal decision-making will make all important decisions for their children.
Courts generally prefer to award legal decision-making for children to both parents. When parents are awarded joint legal decision-making, they must work together to make decisions for their children. Even after divorce or separation, both parents should determine what is best for their children. Successful co-parenting may take time and effort to find the right balance. If parents with joint legal decision-making cannot agree on an important decision, they may request the court make the decision for them.
Joint legal decision-making with final say is a form of legal decision-making where both parents input must work together to agree but one parent will have the final say if they cannot agree. The parent with final say must listen to and consider the other parent’s wishes. Joint legal decision-making with final say is not the same as sole legal decision-making.
Legal decision-making is unrelated to physical custody or visitation. Physical custody or visitation in Arizona is called parenting time.
Parenting time is when the children will spend time with each parent. Parenting plans describe in detail exactly when the children will be with either parent. Parenting plans also specify where the children will spend major holidays, summer and winter vacations, birthdays and other meaningful dates throughout the year. The idea is to give each parent as much meaningful contact with their children as possible.
Parenting plans are not all created equal and there is no “right” plan for you. Different parenting plans may work better or worse depending on the age of your children and your ability to effectively communicate with the other parent. No two cases are the same and what works for some parents may not work for you. It is important to keep an open mind and try different schedules to find what works best for you and your children.
Settling legal decision-making and parenting time issues and avoiding court involvement is in the best interests of both parents and their children. Even agreeing on a few issues can save parents time, money, and stress. Mediation is an excellent way to agree to legal decision-making and parenting time issues. If the parents cannot agree, a judge will decide legal decision-making and parenting time for them.
If the parents cannot agree, the court will use the best interests of the child standard to determine legal decision-making. The best interests of the child standard is a set of guidelines the court will use to decide legal decision-making. The judge will apply the best interests standard to the unique facts and circumstances of your case and decide legal decision-making. The judge will also decide a parenting plan for the children.
If parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, both can submit parenting plans for the judge to consider. Judges attempt to prioritize relationships with both parents.
If your children are of appropriate age and maturity the court may consider their opinion when deciding legal decision-making and parenting time. Your children’s wishes will only account for part of the judge’s decision.
After the court has decided legal decision-making and parenting time, both parents are still entitled to continued, meaningful, and substantial contact with their children. Facts and circumstances of legal decision-making and parenting time change over time. In certain cases, parents can ask the court to change legal decision-making and parenting plans. Courts are especially likely to grant changes if one parent commits an act of domestic violence or is abusing drugs or alcohol.
Parents who use the court system to harass or intimidate the other parent may also be brought up with the judge. The judge may consider the behavior of both parents and their positions when determining legal decision-making and parenting time.
Hiring a Family Law Attorney
Once legal decision-making and parenting time are established, you may have to wait to make changes you believe are necessary. Family dynamics in divorce and separation cases are highly fluid. Some parents are able to put aside their differences for the sake of their children much easier than others. Hiring a family law attorney before the court makes its initial determination may provide you with the best outcome for you and your children.
If a court has already entered a legal decision-making and parenting time decision, hiring a family law attorney may help you achieve your goal of modifying legal decision-making or parenting time.