Maryland families come in all different shapes and sizes. Parents may or may not be married, and they may or may not live together. However, if the parents do decide to divorce or live apart, it is important that their children’s rights and bests interests are protected.
When a married couple with children divorces, the court will determine child custody as part of the divorcecase. When children are born to an unmarried couple, either the mother or the father can pursue custody, so long as paternity has been established.
In a Maryland child custody case, the court will award both legal and physical custody. Legal custody refers to the ability to make important decisions about a child’s upbringing (e.g., schooling, religion, health care), while physical custody refers to the child’s living situation. Both legal and physical custody can be awarded to one parent or shared between both parents.
Determining the Child’s Best Interests
There is no automatic presumption about which parent will be granted custody. Both the mother and the father start out on equal footing under the law. Similarly, there is no automatic presumption that joint custody will be granted, though the judge will likely consider it as an option in most cases.
In all Maryland child custody cases, the judge will make his or her determination based on the best interests and welfare of the child. The judge will based that decision on a consideration of the following factors:
- The child’s age, health and gender
- How the custody arrangement would impact the child’s safety and well-being
- The parents’ wishes, and their ability to cooperate in a parenting plan
- Each parent’s moral character, reputation and fitness to provide social, moral, material, emotional and educational support to the child
- Whether the custody arrangement could help maintain natural family relations
- How long the parents have been separated
- Whether the parents live in close enough proximity to facilitate shared custody or visitation
- Whether either parent has ever abandoned or relinquished custody of the child
- Any history of domestic abuse
- The child’s preference, if the child is of sufficient age and emotional maturity
If you are about to enter into a child custody case, it is important to take time to think about how these factors might apply to your family. Discussing potential positives and negatives with your attorney early in the process can help avoid unwelcome surprises later on down the road.
Visitation and Parenting Time
Just because a parent is not awarded custody does not mean that he or she will not get to have a relationship with the child. Parents who are not awarded custody may seek visitation and parenting time — called “access rights” in Maryland law. Judges have significant discretion to award access rights, even if the parents had previously agreed that there would be no visitation.
In addition, while there is no law that automatically gives access rights to a child’s grandparents, the grandparents can petition for access in court. As with custody cases, the judge will make the decision that he or she finds to be in the child’s best interest.
If you are pursuing a custody or visitation case in Maryland, it is important to be well prepared and to seek the assistance of an experienced attorney. A Baltimore family law attorney can help you make your case and protect your parental rights.