When it comes to family law in Maryland, few issues are more sensitive and potentially controversial than child custody. Loving, caring for, and supporting children is rewarding, demanding and highly personal, so when parents disagree, it’s a recipe for a major battle. The Circuit Courts in Maryland and the District of Columbia as well as in most other jurisdictions across the United States looks to specific factors to decide the best interest of the child when determining custody and visitation of the minor children. Here are some basic facts about child custody law in Maryland.
Different Types of Custody
In Maryland, child custody is a combination of two concepts: physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody concerns the living arrangements for the child. Legal custody refers to responsibility and power over the child, including educational, medical, financial, and other key decisions about the care of the child. Parents can have one or both types of custody, which can be shared (joint) or sole. Maryland courts will order physical and legal custody of a child using the best interest of the child standard, which generally prefers that parents each have some element of physical and legal custody. Under some circumstances, non-parents can obtain physical or legal custody as well.
If one parent is not awarded physical custody of his or her minor child, the courts, in all but the most egregious cases will grant access or visitation to the non-custodial parent. Often visitation is applied in situations where the court determines that one parent unfit to have physical custody of the child. However, just because a parent is unfit, that does not mean that the child should be denied any relationship with his or her parent. The court will make determinations on how best to continue the parent-child and schedule times when the access will occur. In addition, the court will determine whether overnight access is appropriate. In situations where there is a genuine concern about the safety of the child if left alone with the unfit parent, supervised visitation will be ordered. Visitation rights for grandparents and other adults who have a connection with the child can also be ordered by the court.
Obtaining Parental Rights in Maryland
Unless the parents reach an agreement, custody and visitation are decided by a court order. In many cases the parents will attempt to reach an agreement using an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) agreement such as mediation or collaborative law. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, they will have to try the case before a judge. There are no juries in family law cases. In order to assure that parents are equipped to handle litigating custody issues, the Montgomery County Circuit Court requires all parents to participate in a Co-Parenting Program. The purpose is to help them appreciate the potentially devastating impact that the a divorce and custody battle may have on the children. Other parents with an interest in custody or visitation may also be ordered to take the offered courses. The courts will look a large number of factors to make decisions about custody and visitation, including the fitness of the adult, the preferences of the child, and specific facts and circumstances that might impact the wellbeing of the child.
Working With an Attorney for Custody or Visitation
When custody and visitation of children are at issue, it is generally because the parents are having trouble getting along with one another. This conflict can cloud the issues, making it difficult to reach joint decisions or reach agreements without some professional help. When the relationship between the parties is particularly bitter, the children can be weaponized. That is why an experienced family law attorney can advise on the best way to navigate these turbulent waters. The skilled family law practitioner can be particularly helpful when the safety of the child is at issue. A family law attorney will be able to suggest possible arrangements based on experience and make referrals for mental health counseling and other needs that often come up in these tense situations.