Child Custody

Child custody in Arizona is referred to as legal decision-making. Legal decision-making is the legal right parents have to make major decisions for their children. These important decisions include medical, education, and religious choices.

Child custody in Arizona is referred to as legal decision-making. Legal decision-making is the legal right parents have to make major decisions for their children. These important decisions include medical, education, and religious choices.

There are two general types of legal decision-making awarded by courts:

  • Sole custody (sole legal decision-making)
  • Joint custody (joint legal decision-making)

Sole Custody

Sole custody means one parent has all legal rights and responsibilities for their children. Sole custody or “full custody” as it is sometimes called is rarely awarded by courts when both parents appear in court. Unless one parent has committed significant domestic violence, abused or neglected the child, or has substance abuse or other diagnosed mental health issues, a court is unlikely to award sole legal decision-making to a parent.

Even if a parent is awarded sole custody, the other parent may still be awarded parenting time with the children, as courts normally find it in the best interests of the child to maintain substantial, continuing and meaningful contact with both parents.

Joint Custody

Joint custody or “50-50” custody is most commonly awarded by courts. When parents are awarded joint legal decision-making, they must work together to make major decisions for their children. 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 custody cannot agree on an important decision, they may request the court make the decision for them.

In some cases, courts may order “final say” authority to one parent. For example, the parents will share joint custody but one parent will have final say on education and the other will have final say on financial decisions. Final say authority does not mean by default the parent awarded the authority makes the decision. Both parents must work together to agree on what they believe is best for their children, but in the event they cannot reach an agreement, the parent with final say will make the decision. 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.

Custody in terms of legal decision-making is unrelated to visitation rights or physical custody. Physical custody or visitation in Arizona is called parenting time.

Visitation rights are called parenting time in Arizona. Parenting time is when specifically the children will spend time with each parent. Parenting plans describe in detail exactly when the children will be with either parent. Parenting plans specify where the children will spend major holidays, summer and winter vacations, birthdays and other meaningful dates throughout the year like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. The purpose 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 and your children. 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.

Settling custody and visitation issues and avoiding court is in the best interests of both parents. Agreeing on just a few issues can save parents time, money and stress. Mediation is an excellent way to agree to custody and visitation issues. If parents cannot agree, a judge will decide custody and visitation for them, with no guarantee anyone will be satisfied.

If the parents cannot agree, the court will use the best interests of the child standard to determine custody and visitation. The best interests of the child standard is a set of legal guidelines the court will use to decide custody and visitation. The court will apply the best interests of the child standard to the unique facts and circumstances of your case, based on the following:

  • Both parents’ preferences on parenting time
  • The children’s preferences
  • Each child’s relationship with the parents
  • Each child’s relationship with siblings and others
  • Each child’s ability to adjust to new schedules
  • Both parents’ physical and mental health
  • Each child’s physical and mental health
  • Which parent is more likely to allow contact with the other parent
  • Any history of domestic violence or child abuse by either parent
  • Which parent has historically been the primary caregiver to the child

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 custody and visitation, both parents are still entitled to continued, meaningful, and substantial contact with their children. Facts and circumstances of custody and visitation change over time. In certain cases, parents can ask the court to change custody and visitation. Courts are especially likely to grant changes if one parent commits an act of domestic violence or is abusing drugs or alcohol.

Courts will not tolerate parents who use the judicial system to harass or intimidate the other parent. The judge will consider the behavior of both parents and the reasonableness of their positions when determining custody and visitation. This is why it’s best to stay as calm as possible and refrain from sending offensive emails and text messages. Though it may provide you with temporary relief, it could also hurt your case in future court proceedings.

If you share joint custody and are planning to move from Arizona or more than 100 miles within Arizona, you must provide written notice of your intent to relocate at least 45 days in advance. You will need to provide proof the other parent received your notice (certified mail return-receipt or an affidavit from a process server).

Within 30 days of receiving the notice, the other parent may ask the court to prevent you from relocating with your child. The court will determine whether to allow the relocation on the best interests of the child standard. The parent seeking to relocate the child has the burden to prove the relocation is in the child’s best interests.

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 custody and visitation 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 custody and visitation order, hiring a family law attorney may help you achieve your goal of changing it. In general, the court requires you to wait one year before changing custody and visitation orders. If one parent is not complying with the order, they may file after waiting six months after the custody and visitation order was entered. Exceptions to these rules apply in cases involving domestic violence, or any time a child’s physical or emotional health is damaged by a parent.

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