Child Custody and Family Law

Parenting Time, Child Support, Legal Decision Making

child custody attorney tucsonResolving parenting time  issues is an area of law that I  have devoted my practice to for good reason!  I am a single father and fully understand the seriousness of Custody Disputes and how important it is for your child to enjoy healthy and meaningful relationships with their parents in the context of a divided home.  I know first hand how hard single parents must work to maintain a work/home balance.  And I know how a stressful custody dispute can negatively impact other areas of your life.  Me or someone from my office will regularly communicate with my clients to ensure that we know exactly what is going on in your case as  it happens.  I work with my clients on learning communication skills with the other parent, on when to stand up for your self and when to compromise.    I work with my clients to create personalized parenting schedules and parenting plans that will work specifically for them.

Custody disputes are exhausting and emotional leaving some people vulnerable to attorneys who capitalize on fear and encourage parents to fights as a means to maximize their profits.    I am a big believer that all parents MUST learn to resolve disputes with each other, to be flexible, and to make sacrifices for the good of the child.  At the same time, I will be a relentless advocate for protecting children and parents from an abusive and bullying parent,  from parent who seek to maximize parenting time to reduce child support, and the parent who uses the children as a sword against the other parent. (parental alienation).  I also believe that this mandate is what the Court wants and expects but seldom gets.

The custody laws in Arizona now recognize the equal rights of fathers.  Mothers no longer receive favorable treatment over Fathers in custody cases, whether married or not.  Both Mother and Father are now viewed as equals in the eyes of the law and either may qualify for primary custody of a child.    This includes children that are born in the context of outside a marriage (Special Paternity).  It is important that even unmarried fathers remember that they have custody and visitation rights in Arizona.

The verbiage has changed as well.   Physical custody (now referred to as parenting time) refers to where the child lives on a day to day basis.  Legal custody (now referred to as legal decision making) refers to the responsibility and rights of a parent to make decisions pertaining to the child’s education, religion, medical issues, etc.

It is important for any family lawyer to understand and to combat the obstacles faced by parents, such as:

  • parental alienation where one parent may attempt to reduce one parent’ rights to child access and parenting time
  • parental interference when one parent schedules activities during the other parents time
  • refusing to communicate with the other parent
  • sabotaging the child’s relationship with the other parent

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

What is Legal Decision Making? 

Legal Decision Making is a legal term referring to the right of a person to make decisions about the care and welfare of a child (for example, decisions about education, health care and religious training). The law does not  base their decisions on the sex of the parent.

What is parenting time?

Parenting time (also sometimes called “access,” “contact,” “residential time,” or “visitation”) is a legal term referring to the opportunity for the child to spend time with each parent. This parent is often called the “non-custodial parent.”  Arizona now has a strong presumption that it is in the best interests of the child to have an equal amount of time with each parent.  This may certainly be challenged if good cause exists.

Who decides custody and parenting time?

Parents may agree between themselves about custody or parenting time; however, if the parents cannot agree and if the Arizona legal system becomes involved (for example, when a parent asks the court for a divorce), only the Superior Court may decide these issues.

What is meant by “sole legal decision making”  versus “joint legal decision making” ?

This means that one person has sole legal custody of a child. In this situation, the court orders that one parent be responsible for making the major decisions regarding the child’s care or welfare. Although both parents may discuss these matters, the parent designated by the court has authority to make final decisions in the event the parents do not agree.  When the court grants joint legal custody, each of the parents has the same rights to make decisions about the child’s care and welfare and neither parent’s rights are superior to those of the other parent.

If parents have joint legal decision making, does the child live with each of them for equal amounts of time?

Not necessarily. Having joint legal custody does not mean that parents also have joint physical custody or equal parenting time (see section 25-403, Arizona Revised Statutes).

How can a court’s order be changed?

Either parent may request in writing that the court modify a custody order. To change an existing order it must be shown that the best interests of the child are served. The request is filed with the Clerk of the Superior Court and a fee for filing is charged; however, there are limitations on requesting a modification. For example, a request may not be filed for one year from the date of the earlier order, unless there are special circumstances seriously endangering the child’s physical, mental, emotional or moral health. If a form of joint custody has been ordered, a modification may be requested at any time if there is evidence that domestic violence, spousal abuse or child abuse has occurred since the date the last order was granted. In a joint custody situation, a parent must wait six months before seeking a modification if the reason for the request is that one parent has failed to obey the court’s custody order.

What does the court consider when deciding what is in the child’s best interests?

State law provides guidance to the courts by listing factors that the court should consider. These include such things as the wishes of the parents, the child’s wishes, how the child interacts with each parent and any other children in the family, the health of each person involved, the child’s adjustment to home, school and community, which parent primarily has provided care for the child in the past and which parent is more likely to allow the child to have frequent and meaningful contact with the other parent.

The court also must consider whether there has been domestic violence in the family, drug or alcohol use by a parent or other circumstances that may endanger the child’s physical, mental, emotional or moral health. The court will presume that an award of custody to a parent who committed an act of domestic violence is contrary to the child’s best interests.

When custody is decided, how does a parent obtain child support?

The law provides that when the court grants a custody order, it also must decide what amount of child support should be paid, by each parent, under the Arizona Child Support Guidelines. Joint custody does NOT mean that either parent is no longer responsible to provide for the support of the child.

That depends on the child’s age and stage of development. For example, it may not be appropriate to have lengthy periods of parenting time with a newborn child, although more frequent shorter visits may be appropriate. Some counties (Coconino, Maricopa, Mohave, Pima, Pinal and Yavapai) have established guidelines to help parents and the courts decide how much parenting time is important to the child. The Arizona Supreme Court has also published Model Parenting Time Plans to assist parents in establishing age-related parenting time schedules; however, it is important to remember that guidelines do not apply to all family situations or to all children. If the parents cannot agree on a schedule, the court decides parenting time on a case by case basis (see listing at the back of this booklet for information on obtaining a copy of the Model Parenting Time Plans).

How does the court make its decision about parenting time?

If there is a dispute about parenting time, the court sometimes refers the parents to court mediation services. This process gives the parents an opportunity to reach an agreement regarding parenting time and related issues. However, if the parties are unable to agree on parenting time, the court must decide for them. Sometimes the court seeks professional advice to evaluate the family situation or offer an opinion about parenting time. When making its decision, the court will consider many factors, for example, the age and health of the child, the time each parent has available from work or other obligations, the distance between the parents’ homes, the child’s school schedule and the suitability of living conditions in each parent’s home.

What if a parent disobeys a court order for parenting time?

If one parent violates a parenting time order, the other parent cannot deny parenting time, stop paying support or take other self-created action to punish the violating parent (to do so also would violate the court order). Instead, the court should be asked for help. To do this, a parent must file a written request for enforcement with the Clerk of the Superior Court and pay a filing fee. A hearing before the court may be necessary if the matter cannot be resolved.

What can the court do if a parenting time order is disobeyed?

When a parent files a request for help in enforcing a parenting time order, state law requires the court to take quick action. There are several remedies the court can use to deal with the violating parent. Some of these remedies may include ordering parenting time to make up for missed sessions, ordering the violating parent to attend education classes or counseling and finding the violating parent in contempt of court and ordering monetary fines (see section 25-414, Arizona Revised Statutes).