Child Custody: What is it?
Child custody is the term Alabama family courts use to refer to several topics related to guardianship of minor children. Courts determine custody during divorce, paternity cases, or other petitions. Custody deals with both the legal and practical aspects of guardianship, including decision-making, visitation, and who serves as the child’s primary physical custodian.
If you have concerns about child custody, an Alabama divorce lawyer can help you navigate the law and its complexities. A law firm can generally provide no-obligation evaluations and answer your questions during these initial consultations. They can also advocate for your best interests as a parent and your child’s best interests during custody matters.
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Child Custody in Alabama
When people talk about child custody in Alabama, they generally mean their child’s legal and physical guardianship. There are several parts of custody, including legal custody (making decisions on the child’s behalf) and physical custody (where the child lives). Courts also establish visitation schedules and child support to settle custody cases.
Several types of legal petitions may involve a custody order. This includes:
- Establishing paternity
- Child support order establishment
- Petitioning for custody or visitation
Sole custody arrangements are rare in Alabama. The state’s laws support a healthy relationship and frequent interaction with both parents as long as this arrangement meets the child’s needs.
To this end, most custody orders grant:
- Joint legal custody (decision-making)
- Physical custody to one or both parents
- Frequent visitation and shared holidays and school breaks with the other parent
- Child support to the primary physical custodian
Alabama law requires all judges to consider that each parent has a right to a healthy and regular relationship with their children, barring abuse, neglect, or other dangerous behaviors. However, you could still make a case for primary physical custody or sole custody if this meets your children’s best interests.
Child Custody Factors Under Alabama Law
Each state has laws related to child custody. Under Alabama law, Alabama judges consider numerous factors to determine when joint or sole custody is best for the children. Though the state prefers joint legal custody and regular visitation, it may award sole physical custody under certain circumstances.
Some of the most important factors a judge weighs when making child custody decisions include:
The Child’s Relationship With Each Parent
Alabama law seeks to help children build and maintain strong relationships with each parent. The parent who provides primary care for the child may have an advantage under this factor. However, most parents today share responsibilities regarding providing care and meeting their children’s basic needs.
Your attorney may present evidence showing you have a relationship with the child’s teachers, support or coach their teams, and volunteer in their school.
The Home Environment Each Parent Provides
The judge considers where each parent lives, who else lives in the home, and the child’s sleeping arrangements. For example, a parent who can provide the child with their own room instead of sharing their room with a parent may prevail under this factor.
The Parents’ Health
The court must consider each parent’s mental, emotional, and physical health to ensure they can meet the child’s needs. A serious medical condition will not prevent a parent from receiving primary physical custody. However, judges may consider this in their rulings.
The Child’s Wishes
Alabama law does not set an age when a judge must consider a child’s wishes. Instead, it grants each judge the discretion to decide when a child is mature enough to voice their opinion and if a case calls for considering this factor. Generally, the older the child, the more likely the judge will weigh their wishes as a part of their decision.
The Child’s Age and Gender
The child’s age and gender often play a role in custody decisions. The mother may have an advantage with very young children if she provides the primary care for the baby before separation and divorce. Gender plays a more significant role with children as they age and reach puberty. The court could accept that pre-teens and teens increasingly need support and contributions from the same-gender parent.
Any Agreements the Parents Make
The judge will heavily weigh any agreements the parents make. If the agreement serves the child’s best interest, the judge will likely honor it. They will then rule on the remaining questions.
For example, if the parents agree the mother should receive primary physical custody, the court will likely award it to her. However, the judge will rule on a visitation schedule based on other factors.
Professional Assessments of the Child’s Best Interests
A guidance counselor, social worker, therapist, doctor, or other professional may assess the child or their living situation. In that case, the judge will review these documents or hear testimony about their experience with the child.
Each Parent’s Financial Stability and Health
While income does not play a primary determining role in custody decisions, a primary physical custodian must have the financial stability and income necessary to provide for the child. The judge considers the parent’s ability to earn, their income, and other related factors when determining custody.
The Child’s School, Community, and Activities
Alabama law encourages judges to help children maintain as much of their current lives as possible despite their parents’ divorces. This includes remaining in the same school, near the same friends, and participating in the same activities. This is one reason the parent who lives in the marital home or nearby may have an advantage.
Any History of Abuse, Neglect, Domestic Violence, or Substance Abuse
The judge will hear evidence of abuse, violence, or drug use around the child or in the previous relationship. Your attorney could document your concerns and present evidence to support any allegations.
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How Do I Get a Child Custody Plan During a Divorce or Dispute?
Child custody is often one of the most highly contested topics in a divorce. Both parents may want to play an active role in their child’s life. They may disagree on who can provide the best environment and care for the child as the primary physical custodian and how they share visitation.
Many cases resolve with a negotiated agreement, but the judge will issue a court order if they cannot settle their differences or if the agreement does not align with the law.
Filing a Motion for Temporary Orders
Early in a divorce, the judge may put a temporary plan in place for custody while this process plays out. One or both parties may file a motion for such temporary orders during the divorce case. This motion requests that the judge assess the child’s best interests during this time and assign a schedule for the parents to follow until the divorce is final.
Later, the court will thoroughly analyze the factors determining child custody before creating a final plan.
Negotiating an Agreement on Custody Matters
The best way to resolve child custody matters during a divorce and ensure you have a say in the plan is to negotiate an agreement with the other parent. Your attorney can help with this process. They work to present trade-offs and ideas for a potentially acceptable agreement. You can do so by using a professional mediator.
Custody Via Court Order
When parents cannot agree on legal and physical custody, primary physical custody, visitation, and other issues, the judge will weigh the factors and determine a plan for the family. Your attorney can develop a case and present evidence in court to show the judge why you deserve the custody decision you desire, such as primary physical custody.
In court, the judge will also hear any evidence to show neglect, abuse, drug use, or other behaviors that pose a danger to your child. If you have any of these concerns, discuss your approach with your lawyer. They can gather evidence to confirm your allegations for the court.
Even if the court must get involved in determining your custody order, your attorney can speak for your and your children’s best interests.
How Does Child Support Work in Alabama?
Child support is not a negotiated aspect of custody in an Alabama divorce or dispute. Instead, the state has strict calculations used to determine the amount paid by one parent to the other to help. This helps cover their child’s basic needs until they reach the age of legal majority—age 19 in Alabama.
Using state guidelines to determine the support amount, your attorney may preliminarily determine how much you need to pay or how much you could receive. The court will assess this during the trial or while reviewing your agreements and include it in the parenting plan.
A child support calculation includes:
- Each parent’s gross income
- How many days the child spends with each parent
- The number of children
- Additional costs such as health insurance and childcare, in some cases
Because of these factors, even parents who split physical custody 50/50 generally pay and receive some child support. Alabama law considers financial contribution an essential part of providing care and support for your child.
Modifying an Existing Child Custody Order
Sometimes, you must modify a child custody order already in effect. This happens often. Circumstances change, especially if several years pass after the divorce and the young child is now a busy teen.
Alabama law understands that one-size-fits-all is not an option in family court. In fact, the order and plan that fit your family a few years ago probably do not fit you the same way now.
To receive a modification, you need to provide the court that issued the original order with evidence to show:
- A significant “material” change occurred.
- This change affects the child’s best interests.
- A better alternative exists.
Like divorces and other filings, modifications may be contested or uncontested. An example of an uncontested custody change might be that your schedule changed at work, and now you need to swap your ordered Wednesday night overnight for Monday instead. Your former spouse agrees. You have your attorney manage the paperwork, submit it to the court, and ask for approval.
Contested petitions to modify arise when the parents cannot agree with the necessary changes or one does not believe any changes are necessary. This requires going before the judge and presenting evidence to support your petition, having an attorney who ensures the judge hears your voice, and showing your priority supports the well-being of your children.
Some common reasons that make modifications necessary include:
- The child grew older and now requires different support and care.
- A parent’s work schedule changes.
- A parent is moving to another state.
- The child is experiencing abuse or neglect.
- There are other negative experiences in their other home.
- The parent with custody can no longer meet the child’s needs.
Working with an attorney familiar with these petitions makes navigating modifications much easier. They discuss your desire to change the current order, build a case to support the modification, file the petition, and represent your voice and your child’s best interests throughout the process.
A Divorce Lawyer’s Team Can Answer Your Questions Today
Most Alabama divorce firms offer confidential, no-obligation case evaluations to potential clients. You can speak with a law firm to learn more about your case, options, and next steps. The divorce lawyer can manage the process if you move forward with a divorce or another custody case. They can ensure all parties hear your voice and seek the best outcome for you and the children involved.
You don’t have to navigate child custody matters on your own. So, get started today and get answers to your most pressing concerns about child custody, visitation, and support.