Fort Lauderdale Child Custody Attorneys
Your Guide to Child Custody in Florida
For many parents, child custody battles are the most stressful and frustrating aspects of the divorce process. How child custody battles play out can have significant ramifications on the abilities of each parent to form a healthy bond and relationship with their child or children, so navigating a child custody case is often a nerve-wracking process.
If you’re involved in a child custody case, you need a family law attorney who will pursue your best interests. At the Arcaro Law Group, our attorneys have more than 35 years of combined experience helping clients tackle divorce cases and related issues such as child custody.
What’s the Difference Between Legal and Physical Custody?
The first step to understanding how child custody works is understanding the difference between physical and legal custody.
Physical custody governs how much time children spend living with their parents. For example, if children spend 100% of their time living with one parent, that parent has sole physical custody. In an arrangement where both parents have somewhat equal custody (such as 50/50 or 60/40 custody), the parents have joint custody.
Since years have an uneven number of nights (with the exception of leap years), whichever parent the children spend more nights with is considered the custodial parent. The custodial parent can file taxes as a head of household, while the non-custodial parent cannot. That’s significant because heads of households receive unique tax deductions. Many divorced parents in 50/50 joint custody arrangements switch off as custodial parents every year so that every other year each parent gets to file taxes as a head of household.
Legal custody governs what kinds of decisions the parents can make for the children. For example, legal custody determines how much sway each parent has when making decisions for their children, such as which school they should attend, what medical care they should receive, what religions or cultures they’re exposed to, etc.
Generally, courts try and preserve joint legal custody, even if only one parent has physical custody. The rationale behind preserving joint legal custody is relatively simple—courts typically try and ensure one parent can’t make life-altering decisions for their children (such as denying them healthcare or introducing them to a new religion) unless the other parent agrees. However, in certain circumstances where a parent has shown themselves to be incompetent as a parent or unable to make decisions in the best interests of their children, one parent may receive sole legal custody.
What’s the Goal of Courts in Child Custody Battles?
In recent years, the state of Florida has placed an increased emphasis on the responsibility of parents in custody arrangements. In 2008, the Florida legislature actually replaced common custody-related terminology, such as “joint custody” with different vernacular such as “equal time-sharing.” These updates served to place additional emphasis on the mission of the legislature to ensure that each parent in a custody arrangement takes responsibility for the wellbeing of their children, and that courts reach fair and equitable custody arrangements.
For the purpose of readability, we’ll continue using common terms such as “sole custody” and “joint custody” throughout this page. If you’re interested in the Florida-specific wording for child custody terms, we suggest asking the family lawyer responsible for your case.
For now, it’s important to focus on the mission of the Florida legislature: to try and ensure both parents have a healthy relationship with their children and take their responsibilities as a parent seriously.
In other words, the priority of the courts is always to protect the best interests of any children involved in a custody battle, not necessarily to make both parents happy with the custody arrangement. Courts take a multitude of factors into account when determining how to preserve the best interests of children, including:
- the physical and mental health of the parents;
- what cultures or religions each parent is involved in (courts typically look down on religions perceived to be extreme, for example);
- what sort of custody arrangement would help the child maintain the same quality of life post-divorce as they enjoyed pre-divorce;
- whether or not the children have any special needs the court needs to make an exception for;
- whether or not the parents have a history of emotional or physical abuse with the children;
- whether or not the parents have displayed any behavior indicating they may be unfit as a parent or become unfit as a parent in the future;
- and perhaps most importantly, assuming the child is old enough to make decisions about their future, what they want out of a custody arrangement.
These factors all contribute to what kind of child custody arrangement the court decides to pursue.
To make an accurate judgment about the above items, courts take a deep dive into the relationship each parent has with their children. For example, most courts consider the following factors:
- Whether or not one parent is more likely to maintain contact with their ex than another. Courts generally aim for joint custody arrangements, since it’s usually ideal for children to spend time with both parents and develop a healthy connection to both parental figures. If one parent is more likely to maintain contact with their ex, the court may favor that parent in a custody arrangement.
- How capable each parent is of providing the children with a stable home and quality of life. Different factors, such as income, current employability, and the nature of each parent’s profession, can all play a role in this decision. For example, a parent who works as a pilot and is rarely home is unlikely to be favored in a custody arrangement. Courts typically ask each parent what kind of home and care they plan on providing for the children post-divorce and use the answer to help determine the child custody arrangement.
- What kind of relationship each parent has with the children. Courts consider the emotional bond the children share with each parent and, perhaps more importantly, whether that bond is healthy.
- How each parent handles parenting responsibilities. Courts will often interview parents to determine their approach to parenting and what morals they display in their parenting practices. A parent who tends to over-discipline their children, for example, may hold less sway in child custody cases. Courts also consider how involved each parent is in the life of their child, and how much each parent knows about their children’s behavior, likes, dislikes, etc.
Once the court has a better understanding of all these variables, they’ll pursue the child custody case further.
What’s the Timeline for Child Custody Cases?
How long it takes for the court to reach a judgment in your child custody case largely depends on your relationship with your ex.
If you and your ex have an amicable relationship and largely agree on how child custody should be handled, custody cases can take a short amount of time. In contrast, custody cases where both exes are estranged or strongly disagree about custody can take a significant amount of time to process.
Mediation is a mandatory step in Florida child custody cases. The court assigns a mediator to the case, who attempts to work with the parents (or their attorneys, if necessary) to determine a mutually beneficial child custody arrangement.
During the mediation phase, various parameters of the child custody arrangement are established, including:
- Whether or not a child support arrangement is necessary,
- how the parents will exchange custody,
- what kind of life insurance and medical care the parents want for the children,
- how the parents plan to provide services such as healthcare for the children,
- the desires of each parent concerning preferences such as education and religion,
- and any other details the mediator considers important.
The success of the mediation phase then determines the next steps. If the mediation phase is successful, the parents draft a parenting plan detailing how the custody arrangement will be handled. Details in the parenting plan include how the children will spend holidays, what days of the week each parent has with the children, where they’ll exchange custody, how parents will handle events such as parent-teacher conferences, etc.
If the mediation phase is unsuccessful, the court will work with the mediator and use the factors we talked about earlier to draft a parenting plan on behalf of the parents.
Either way, the parenting plan is the last step before the court issues their official judgment determining the child custody arrangement. The child custody arrangement issued by the court is legally binding, and parents who violate the court-ordered child custody arrangement risk legal penalties.
Should circumstances change for either parent and the original custody arrangement becomes untenable, either parent can request a modification to the custody arrangement.
You want the best for your child—and so do we. At Arcaro Law Group, we’ll fight for your parental rights in and out of the courtroom.