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Maryland child custody basics

On behalf of Shelly McKeon

Child custody decisions as a result of divorce can be complicated. Divorcing parents have leeway to make mutual decisions about child custody, but if they cannot agree, the court will step in to make the decision for them.

Maryland child custody law

There are two types of custody: physical and legal. Physical custody refers to the home where the child lives and making routine decisions about the child’s day-to-day life. Legal custody is the right to make global, long-term decisions on behalf of the child, such as religious affiliation, education and non-emergency medical care. When one parent has both physical and legal custody, it is referred to as sole custody.

If there are two or more children, split custody could be the preferred solution, with each parent having physical custody of a child.

The law in Maryland does not play favorites; there is no pre-determined assumption that physical custody should go to either a father or a mother.

Some legislators and experts recommend a combination of equally shared legal and physical custody, a status that is called joint custody. In joint legal custody, both parents share in making major decisions. Shared physical custody means that the child has two different homes and that he or she spends at least 35 percent of his or her time living with one of the parents.

Negotiating joint custody arrangements

When determining whether to approve a joint custody arrangement, a judge will evaluate many factors. Parents who want joint custody have to show the judge that they can work together for the best interests of the child. The court will be concerned with the child’s relationship with each parent and, if the child is old enough to articulate a preference, the child’s own inclination.

The judge will also consider the child’s stability in school and social life, and, hence, geography matters. If the parents’ homes are far apart, shuttling a child back and forth frequently might be counterproductive. In addition, finances will need to be arranged so that the child’s needs are adequately provided for.

Many variations on joint custody are possible. For example, shared physical custody could be worked out so that each parent maintains a living space for the child in the parent’s separate home, or it could mean that the child stays put in one home and it is the parents who move in and out of that home.

Individual circumstances

Every Maryland family has its own individual needs. For example, when parents have never been married, the mother is unquestionably the child’s parent, but the father is another matter. Unmarried fathers need to establish paternity order to have any rights to custody of the child. The court can make a legal determination or the father can expressly acknowledge that he is the child’s parent.

Even if parents agree on an initial plan, circumstances can change, and there may be a need to modify an existing child custody order. A parent who needs to resolve child custody issues will benefit from the help of an experienced Maryland family law attorney. An attorney will work with the court and the other parent to obtain a result that is in the child’s best interest and compatible with the parent’s wishes as well.

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