Child custody is one of the most difficult challenges facing divorcing parents. It is also one of the most important. Whether the issue arises in a divorce, a legal separation, or post decree modifications, custody is a highly emotional issue for everyone concerned. It determines who will take care of your minor child and who will have the power to make decisions affecting the child.
Nobody wants this turbulence to affect the children. Some couples are able to agree on the issues relating to the child, but many couples cannot. Then you will need the services of a family law court. Florida custody laws have changed over the years and they differ from one jurisdiction to another. Whether you are working out an agreement or going to court, you owe it to yourself and your children to be as informed as possible.
What Does The Law In Florida Say?
Under the Florida child custody law, the best interests of the child are the standard for making a custody decision. This applies to care and parenting of the child, whether the parents are divorcing or unmarried.
Prior to 2008, Florida law used terms such as custodial or noncustodial parent, sole custody and visitation to discuss where the child would live and which parent would pay child support. Traditionally, sole custody meant that one parent had legal and physical custody of the child. Joint custody meant that both parents shared legal and physical child custody.
Drawn-out conflicts frequently arose about which parent had the legal right to make important decisions for the minor child. Some parents felt shame at being labeled the “secondary” rather than the primary custodial parent. Now, under Florida family laws, both parents have “parental time-sharing” with their children.
What was formerly called joint custody is shared parental responsibility, which means that both parents are responsible for all decisions related to the child. Despite the new terms, the older terms are still used in some instances, but parental responsibility and time-sharing are more accurate terms.
Parenting Plan Basics
In every case for dissolution of marriage or for paternity, there must be a parenting plan. Parenting plans are a document or part of a settlement agreement. They specify how the parenting responsibilities will be shared upon dissolution of a union. The court applies factors which are listed in Florida statute 61.13. Based on these factors, the court will order a time-sharing schedule that is in the best interests of the child.
These changes in child custody laws shift the court’s focus from a battle between parents to get custody of a child, to determining a fair and reasonable time-sharing parenting plan for the benefit of the child. Some of these provisions cover the time-sharing schedule, including the time-sharing schedule for holidays and vacations. It also includes out-of-state or out-of-country travel, education, extra-curricular activities, and child care. The plan deals with contact and communication between the parents, as well as between the parents and children.
No matter how specific and reasonable, however, the details of shared parental responsibility and creation of a workable parenting plan can be challenging for everyone concerned. It requires both parents to focus on the needs of the child. It places the needs of the child above the needs and desires of the parents.
Custody Arrangement Considerations
When thinking about custody arrangements, it is important to consider your goals for your child. Give careful thought to living arrangements, adequate time with the other parent and extended family members. Think about schools, extracurricular activities, medical care and any special needs the child may have. What about daily, routine parental tasks? If a problem arises, how do both parents handle conflict? When is flexibility in the schedule recommended?
The courts pay close attention to matters of education health and other aspects of raising a child. According to the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Society and Health, “Americans with more education live longer, healthier lives than those with fewer years of schooling.” Many factors affect the education and health of children and their families. Education and health are closely linked because better education can lead to better health, poor health can adversely affect educational opportunities, and from childhood on, conditions can have an effect on both health and education.
The next step is to take a look at the factors set forth in Florida Statute 61.13, used by the Florida courts to establish the best interests of the children:
- The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship
- The anticipated division of parental responsibilities after litigation
- The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to consider and act upon the needs of the child as opposed to the needs and desires of that parent
- The length of time the child has lived in a stable and satisfactory environment
- Geographic viability of the plan
- The moral fitness of both parents
- The mental and physical health of the parents
- The home, school and community record of the child
- The reasonable preference of the child
- The demonstrated knowledge, capacity, and disposition of each parent to be informed about the child
- The demonstrated capacity of each parent to provide a consistent routine to the child
- The demonstrated capacity of each parent to communicate with and keep the other parent informed regarding issues and activities, regarding the minor child and the willingness of each parent to adopt a unified front as to all major issues when dealing with the child
- Domestic violence and other abuse knowledge about false information to the court regarding domestic violence and other abuse
- False information regarding domestic violence
- The parenting tasks historically performed by each parent and the division of parental responsibilities
- The extent to which each parenting responsibility was undertaken by third parties
- The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to participate and be involved in the child’s school and extracurricular activities
- Substance abuse of both parties
- The capacity and disposition of each parent to protect the child from ongoing litigation as demonstrated by not discussing the litigation with the child, not sharing documents, electronic media, etc.
- The developmental stages and needs of the child and disposition of each party to meet the child’s developmental needs
- The reasonable preference of the child. This is only if the court deems the child to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference.
Understanding the “Best Interest” Factors
At first glance, the “best interests” factors may seem overwhelming, but it is worthwhile to study each factor carefully. Your attorney will assist you in understanding how the factors apply to your situation.
Regarding the factor of consistency, for example, the court will weigh the ability and disposition of each parent to provide a consistent routine for the child. Children with a stable daily routine tend to do better developmentally. This does not mean that both parents have to follow precisely the same routine. They must, however, agree on some basics, such as bedtime or educational schedules. If one parent is significantly better at maintaining the basic routine, the court may weigh this factor in favor of the consistent parent.
The court is also concerned with matters of participation and involvement. Attentive parents meet with teachers, help with homework, attend school events, and generally play an active role in all aspects of the child’s life. Again, the court will be looking for frequency and regularity of participation.
Florida Child Support
Financial support is also an important question. Generally, under Florida child custody law, the parent who has the most time-sharing will receive child support. The Child Support Guidelines Worksheet is used to calculate child support. The formula is based upon the parents’ income, each parent’s timesharing schedules, health insurance, additional medical expenses and daycare costs.
When The Plan Fails
You may be concerned about what happens when the parenting plan does not work smoothly. In order to modify an existing Florida child custody order, a parent must show that there has been a substantial, material, or unanticipated change in circumstances. If the court finds that a parent has violated the parenting plan, the court can take various measures, set forth in Florida Statutes 61.13:
- Award the parent a sufficient amount of extra time sharing as compensation.
- Order the violating courts parent to pay reasonable court costs and attorneys’ fees incurred due to the other parent courts involvement.
- Require the party to attend the best parenting course approved by the judicial circuit.
- Order the parent to do community service. The order can’t interfere with the welfare of the plans children.
- Order the party to take on the financial burden to enforce the time sharing included in the parties parenting plan. Consequently, this is only if the child lives more than 60 miles away from the other parent.
- Modify the parenting plan.
- Impose any other reasonable sanction as a result of noncompliance with custody law in Florida.
We’re Here to Help
Child custody issues are difficult and exhausting. Extreme emotion and stress may lead to poor decisions. This is a very difficult issue and you need the help of an experienced legal advocate. If you have questions, please contact us. We are here to help you.