Alabama law outlines an extensive list of factors that the judge must consider when deciding a custody case and creating a parenting plan in their family court.
They generally rule based on what they believe serves the child’s best interests. The most important factors could vary from case to case.
Your Alabama divorce lawyer knows how judges make these decisions and what factors will weigh most heavily based on the circumstances of your case. They could build a strong argument to show why you should have legal and physical custody of your children.
Understanding the Factors Alabama Judges Consider for Child Custody Decisions
The court will create a custody order when both parents want legal and physical custody of a child, or when the parents cannot create an agreement on their own. Alabama law outlines the factors judges consider when determining child custody.
Alternatively, if the parents have an agreement, the judge reviews it based on:
The Relationship of the Child With Each Parent
In many cases, both parents participate in child-rearing. If the child has a strong relationship with both parents, the judge may be more likely to award joint custody.
However, in cases when one parent stays home and provides all essential childcare, they may have an advantage in custody decisions. On the other hand, if a parent is absent or otherwise does not participate in the child’s education and other activities, the court will also consider this.
Each Parent’s Ability to Provide for the Child’s Needs
The judge will examine each parent’s mental, emotional, and physical health to determine if they can provide for the child’s needs. This includes working to earn an income, providing loving care and support, and participating in activities with the child.
While a serious illness or other concern may not prevent a parent from providing adequate care and support, the court will consider arguments related to these issues.
The Child’s Environment With Each Parent
Where the child will live, who else they live with, and how this affects their everyday life all constitute significant factors in many cases. In many cases, the parent who gets the marital home also gets custody of the children. However, this will not always happen, and the couple must sell the house in some cases. However, keeping the children in their family home is a major factor for some judges.
Who a parent lives with could also affect a custody order. A parent who plans to live with a new partner with a criminal record or move into a small space with several children may not get primary physical custody.
The Child’s Choice
Alabama law does not set an age when a child can choose who to live with. Instead, they consider the wishes of any child mature enough to make the decision. However, this still represents only one factor.
If you and the other parent believe strongly that your teen should have a choice about where to live, you may want to try working out an agreement. The child’s choice does not always weigh heavily among the judge’s considerations.
The Child’s Age
Young children naturally need more hands-on support from their parents than tweens or teenagers. Very young children—babies and toddlers—may still breastfeed. This often proves a significant factor in custody decisions. The mother generally has a better chance of getting custody of very young children.
The Child’s Gender
As children grow up, their gender becomes more important in custody decisions. Judges often weigh their relationship with their same-gender parent as more important when they reach middle and high school. To this end, fathers may have an advantage when seeking custody of a teenage boy.
However, there are many exceptions, and the judge typically considers many other factors.
The Parents’ Agreement, if It Exists
When parents agree on aspects of custody and visitation, the judge considers their wishes when deciding on an order.
When the attorneys handle negotiating and writing these agreements, they understand what the judge wants to see and what could make it into the final plan. Alabama divorce attorneys know how the courts—and often individual judges—like to structure legal and physical custody, visitation, and other orders.
In some cases, a judge will request an assessment of the child to help determine their emotional health and best interests. Even if the court did not request an assessment, each parent may submit reports and opinions from doctors, therapists, guidance counselors, or social workers that support their case.
Each Parent’s Financial Stability
While having more income does not guarantee legal or physical custody of your child, parents generally need to show that they have the financial stability to provide for their needs. This usually consists of having a steady income, working a job, or planning to go to work soon after finishing a degree or other training.
History of Abuse, Neglect, Drug Use, or Other Concerns
If either parent or others they bring around the child has a history of abuse, neglect, drug use, excessive drinking around the child, or other serious concerns, the judge wants to know about it.
Placing the child in a home with confirmed safety concerns likely does not serve the child’s best interests. Additionally, if a parent exposed their child to someone else who engaged in these activities, the judge may weigh this in other custody decisions.
The Child’s Current Activities and Home
Judges typically want to disrupt a child’s life as little as possible. They want to keep them in the home where they can continue to attend the same school, be in the same scouting troupe, play with the same rec sports teams, and continue with the activities they know and enjoy.
Sole Custody, Joint Custody, and Child Support in Alabama
Many people may want their children to live with them. They may believe they should make all decisions about the child’s education, religious upbringing, medical care, and other key factors. If this serves the children’s best interests, the courts will consider sole custody.
However, under Alabama law, sole custody rarely reflects “the best interests of the children.” This law requires the courts to consider joint legal custody, shared physical custody, and a weekly visitation schedule so that both parents spend quality time with the child regularly.
Also, parents should know that custody in Alabama refers to two aspects: physical and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where the child lives, and legal custody refers to who makes major decisions in the child’s life. You could have joint custody of a child, yet the child could live primarily with one parent.
Finalizing the Custody Order and Determining Child Support
When the courts finalize a custody order, the plan will reflect:
- Whether joint or sole custody gets awarded
- Who contributes to major decisions about the child’s life (legal custody)
- Where the child spends most of their time (physical custody)
- How often the child will see the other parent
- Child support payment amounts and who receives it
While the judge has a lot of discretion to apply the previously listed factors when determining child custody orders, child support payments follow strict instructions. Alabama considers several factors and pre-set amounts to determine how much a primary physical guardian receives from the other parent.
The considerations include:
- Each parent’s gross income
- The number of children
- How many days the child spends with each parent
- The cost of childcare, insurance, and medical care costs
Temporary Child Custody Orders in Divorce or Custody Disputes
When there is no custody agreement or court order in place, it creates a frustrating, difficult time for the parents and an unstable and confusing time for the child. For this reason, many judges like to approve a temporary agreement or issue temporary orders as soon as possible. To receive temporary orders, you must file a pretrial motion for them with the judge overseeing the divorce.
The judge will hear evidence to understand the circumstances of the case and briefly assess the child’s best interests. They then rule on where the child will stay, who participates in making decisions, and when they visit their other parent. These orders are temporary until the divorce finalizes and the parents have a permanent plan.
However, your attorney takes this very seriously. While these orders are only temporary, the courts strive to provide children stability while their parents divorce. The children settle into a routine during this time. If the divorce takes months or years, the judge may not want to disrupt the child’s stability to make dramatic changes in the legal and physical custody plan.
What Determines Child Custody: Agreements or Orders?
While the court approves all matters related to child custody, they generally accept agreements negotiated by the parents. They approve them as long as they include joint legal custody and fair visitation or otherwise reflect the type of arrangement favored under Alabama law. Having an attorney who knows what the local courts—and sometimes the individual judge—prefers in these cases may make this easier to achieve.
Negotiating an agreement gives the parents a lot more power to control the outcome of their child custody orders. When they work with their attorneys to discuss trade-offs and come to a settlement they can agree on, it reduces the risk the judge will assign a plan neither of them like. This provides a great incentive for working together.
If you worry you are too far apart on your desires to agree, mediation may help. Many courts require it before moving to trial. Others strongly recommend it. Working with your attorneys and having a trained mediator as a go-between can help you reach common ground. If the custody case goes to trial, the judge will decide on all aspects of guardianship and visitation.
What if We Need to Change Child Custody Orders Later?
Circumstances change. As time passes, the agreement or orders from your divorce may no longer serve your child’s best interests. What worked well for parents seeking to establish their careers with a toddler may not work for well-established business leaders raising an active teen. The courts understand custody modifications are necessary and offer a route to make changes through a Petition to Modify.
Getting the court to approve a modification to a custody agreement or court order requires showing a material change in circumstances. This should constitute a significant change that affects the child’s best interests. The Petition to Modify must outline this change clearly and include an alternative plan.
Possible reasons for modifications could include:
- A parent’s schedule or job changed
- A parent moved to another area or another state
- The child grew older, and their needs changed
- The child no longer feels safe in their home
When both parents agree to a modification, an uncontested petition will likely move through the court without much issue, especially if you work with an attorney to ensure it meets the proper standards. Contested petitions require a hearing where each side presents evidence, and the judge considers the factors used to determine child custody based on the current circumstances. Then, they rule on whether the change serves the child’s best interests.
Working With an Alabama Divorce Attorney Can Make a Difference
Having a knowledgeable Alabama divorce lawyer on your side during your divorce and custody case can make navigating this process easier and less stressful. Your lawyer understands that this is often an emotional and difficult process. Your legal team can offer advice, answer your questions, advocate for you, and ensure everyone involved hears your voice.
Start with an evaluation from a divorce law firm near you. During this time, you can discuss your options and learn what comes next. If you move forward with your case, your attorney and their team can guide you every step of the way, from start to finish.