Under Alabama law, both parents have a right to reasonable visitation with their child. After divorce, the parenting plan will likely award joint legal and physical custody of any children. However, one parent serves as the primary physical custodian. The other parent will presumably receive a schedule for reasonable visitation when they will pick up and care for the child.
If you have concerns about child custody and visitation during your divorce or another dispute, speak with an Alabama divorce lawyer about your options and how to protect your rights. The courts should focus on your child’s best interests, but you may want an attorney on your side to make sure the judge hears your concerns.
Alabama Awards Custody Based on the Best Interests of the Child
Alabama lawmakers want the child to maintain relationships with both parents. Therefore, the state’s custody and guardianship laws focus on shared legal and physical custody. These laws grant each parent the right to reasonable visitation with their child and outline only a few situations where the judge issuing custody orders should not provide regular visits with both parents.
In general, Alabama courts regard the child’s best interests as spending frequent quality time with each parent and having them involved in their everyday activities when possible. Judges usually accept these schedules when parents agree on custody and reasonable visitation.
When parents cannot agree, many counties use default schedules, such as the calendar used in Madison County that includes every other weekend and one night during the week. However, judges have the discretion to tweak these schedules to make them fit any unique circumstances of the case, such as when parents work unusual schedules or live too far apart for visits during a school week.
Types of Custody Awarded in Alabama Divorce Cases
Because Alabama law focuses on shared custody, most court orders or agreements include joint decision-making and physical custody. The judge typically orders parents to work together to make major decisions for their children, including where they go to school, medical decisions, where they attend church (if they do), and more. They may also offer advice on how to solve a disagreement, such as giving one parent the final decision.
An Alabama judge’s custody order reflects three main aspects of custody:
Legal custody refers to guardianship and decision-making for children. Almost all parents share legal custody in Alabama. Even when parents do not have joint physical custody, they generally have input on their child’s education, medical care, religious upbringing, and other key factors.
Legal custody also allows parents to give permission for health care, emergency medical treatment, and activities when they have the child in their care.
Physical custody refers to the time the child spends in each parent’s care. Alabama generally awards joint physical custody with one parent named primary physical custodian. In some cases, the primary parent only has slightly more time with the child than the other parent based on the visitation schedule.
The primary physical custodian often has additional responsibilities, such as providing health insurance for the child and using their address to determine the child’s school district. They generally receive child support from the other parent based on Alabama’s child support laws.
The visitation schedule refers to the plan for when the child sees each parent and how this process works. It generally details what happens during the school year, summer break, other school breaks, and holidays.
This part of the parenting plan establishes reasonable visitation for each parent and ensures the child can maintain a strong relationship with both. The visitation schedule often depends on the parent’s wishes, their work schedules, how close they live to each other, and whether they agree to a plan or receive a court order.
Some parents share their child almost equally, while many have an every-other-weekend arrangement. When one parent lives in another area, they may only see the child during school breaks and on holidays. Because of their location, this would make a reasonable visitation schedule for parents like these.
How Is Custody Decided in Alabama?
During an Alabama divorce or custody dispute, you can establish custody and visitation in two ways: through an agreement or a court order. A similar outcome can result from each. The parents have a court-approved parenting plan outlining their rights and responsibilities and how they share time with their children.
However, the process of getting this plan differs significantly.
The Parents Reach an Agreement
When parents negotiate an agreement regarding legal and physical custody, the judge will likely approve it. The courts like to see parents work together to build a plan specific to their family and their child. This shows they can cooperate and co-parent as well.
Coming up with an agreement together gives the parents much more control over their schedule and allows them to tailor it to their child in a way the judge cannot. It usually offers a better outcome for the parents and prevents litigation from causing bad blood between them. In addition, divorce court often proves stressful and expensive.
The Judge Issues a Court Order
Parents may not always cooperate and negotiate an agreement. When they cannot compromise, the judge will determine custody and visitation. Under Alabama law, the judge must consider several factors to decide custody decisions.
- The child’s current time spent and interactions with each parent
- Where the child attends school and if that would change
- If the child participates in activities in their community
- Each parent’s physical, mental, and emotional health
- The age and gender of the child (older children and teens may benefit from a stronger relationship with their same-gender parent)
- Each parent’s ability to meet the child’s financial needs
- Where the child will live with each parent
- The child’s wishes (if the judge believes they are mature enough to decide)
- Each parent’s wishes
The judge also hears any concerns either parent has about abuse, neglect, violence, drug use, or other issues. You must provide substantiated claims, including documentation showing why you worry about your child’s physical or emotional health when with their other parent. This is one of the few reasons for sole custody in Alabama.
Determining the Visitation Schedule and Child Support
The schedule set for reasonable visitation depends on custody. The child generally spends more time with the primary physical custodian, although some parents have almost 50/50 joint custody. The judge’s discretion will determine this, although many rely on default schedules.
Lastly, the judge uses the visitation schedule to determine how much child support the other parent will pay the primary parent based on:
- The time the child spends with each parent
- The gross income of each parent
- The number of children
- The cost of health insurance, childcare, and other expenses
How to Reach an Agreement on Reasonable Visitation
Like most parents, you likely have preferences for visitation with your child. You probably want to see your child as much as possible when you are not working and need a plan that allows you to participate in your child’s activities. You can best protect your right to reasonable visitation by agreeing to a plan with the child’s other parent.
While the judge will consider the child’s best interests related to custody and visitation, they do not always consider your work schedule. Negotiating a schedule that best suits your unique needs gives you the most control over your parenting plan. There are several things to consider in this process.
Each parent’s work schedule and time spent with other children gets established in a parenting plan. You will likely want your child to see their half-siblings regularly so they can maintain a relationship with them. The parents’ work schedules may affect the plan if no other children exist. For example, if one parent works every weekend but has time off during the week, they may prefer having visitation several days during the week instead of on the weekends.
Sitting down to discuss your schedules or swapping a calendar makes a good first step in negotiating a visitation plan.
The Child’s Age
Very young children may not acclimate to going back and forth between homes as easily as older children. Some babies and toddlers may exclusively breastfeed. While you must respect their other parent’s right to reasonable visitation, a custody plan could account for these considerations.
The Child’s Schedule
As children grow up, their schedules change. Whether the children participate in scouting, sports, marching band, or other activities, their parents should support them. They need parents willing to ensure they make it to meetings, games, and practices. For example, if a teen plays high school football, the parent who has them on Friday nights must be willing to take them to games.
What Will the Judge Approve?
In most cases, the judge overseeing the case approves any fair plan that offers reasonable visitation. An attorney with The Law Offices of Charlotte Christian and Associates can guide you through creating a visitation schedule the judge will likely approve based on their experience with the court and knowledge of Alabama law.
Custody and Visitation Modifications
Alabama law allows parents to modify divorce and child custody orders and agreements in certain situations, meaning you can adjust your visitation schedule or change an agreement as needed. This requires filing a “petition to modify” with the county circuit court that issued your divorce decree. If you agree with the other parent, the judge will likely approve this modification and recalculate child support if necessary.
To receive a divorce modification when the child’s other parent contests the change, you will need to show:
- A material change in circumstances that affects the current agreement or order
- Why the current custody or visitation schedule no longer works
- A schedule or arrangement that would work better
Changes in Circumstances That May Apply
These petitions allow parents to alter court orders when they no longer fit the situation. Therefore, a significant change in circumstances must directly affect the child, parents, or current court order.
Some examples include:
- The child’s age calls for additional time with their same-gender parent.
- The child’s activities require a change in visitation.
- A parent’s work schedule changes significantly.
- A parent relocates to another part of the state or another state.
- The child needs care or educational opportunities only available in the other parent’s school district.
- Evidence shows the child faced physical or emotional harm at the other parent’s house.
When the child’s other parent contests a petition to modify, you may need to attend a formal hearing. Attorneys representing both sides will present arguments to support their positions. The judge will consider these arguments and either uphold the current order or amend it to include the requested modifications. If the number of days with each parent or designated primary physical custodian changes, the judge also reevaluates child support and updates these orders.
Getting Legal Help to Establish Reasonable Visitation and Child Custody in Your Alabama Divorce
As you can imagine, child custody often gets contested during a divorce. Most parents worry about their child’s well-being and how the divorce will affect them more than anything else. These feelings are only natural. However, they can also make it difficult to agree on legal and physical custody and visitation schedules.
Working with an Alabama child custody attorney helps parents navigate divorce and pursue a parenting plan that both honors their objectives and serves the child’s best interests. You do not have to try to fight for custody on your own. Contact an attorney who can guide you through the divorce process from start to finish of your case. Many law firms offer a no-obligation consultation to anyone in need of help.