Among the many issues that must be navigated while divorce, child custody is often the most gut-wrenching. If you’re going through a divorce or separation in Utah, you need to get to know the relevant custody laws and how they may affect you and your children. This article will cover the types of custody, how custody decisions are made, and tips for co-parenting effectively.
Types of Child Custody in Utah
In Utah, there are two types of child custody: legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make important decisions for their child, such as medical care, education, and religion. Physical custody, on the other hand, refers to where the child will live and who they will spend time with. In some cases, parents may share both legal and physical custody (called joint legal custody and joint physical custody), while in other situations, they may not (called sole legal custody and primary physical custody). So, the important thing to remember here is legal custody refers to the ability to make decisions, and physical custody refers to where the child spends their time.
How Custody Decisions Are Made
The court would much prefer that parents work with each other and figure out what kind of custody and parent-time is in the children’s best interests and come to an agreement. However, many parents are unable to agree on what exactly is in their children’s best interests—after all, if these parents could work out complex disagreements like this with each other, then they may not be in court in the first place. When parents cannot reach an agreement, the court will step in and make the decision for them. The court looks at the children’s “best interests,” which includes factors like:
- Whether one or both parents were actively involved in the children’s lives (i.e. attending parent-teacher conferences, doctor appointments, extracurricular activities, helping with homework, being part of the morning and bedtime routine, transporting the children, etc.).
- The children’s emotional and physical needs
- Each parent’s ability to provide for the children’s needs
- The proximity between the two parents’ houses
- The children’s bond and relationship with each parent
- Each parent’s mental and physical health
- The child’s preference (if they are old enough and mature enough to express a preference and articulate the reasons for their preferences)
It’s important to note that in Utah, there is no presumption that one parent is better suited for custody than the other. While there is a strong trend showing that most divorces in the 2000s or earlier ended with mothers getting full or a majority of custody, that trend has substantially leveled out because of some new laws the legislature put in place. Ultimately, the court is obligated by law to make a decision based solely on what’s in the child’s best interests.
Tips for Co-Parenting Effectively
Navigating custody means navigating a co-parenting relationship. No matter how much you hate your ex, a tumultuous co-parenting relationship filled with arguments, contention, accusations, and threats only makes your life worse. Figuring out how to navigate raising children after a custody dispute isn’t easy, but your children will be better for it. Here are some tips for co-parenting effectively:
- Keep communication about the children. Don’t fall into the trap of discussing mistakes of ages past, revisiting old wounds, or getting sidetracked by things irrelevant to parenthood. Your new relationship is one where the children are the priority—don’t let anything cause you to lose sight of that.
- Don’t meet fire with fire. When your ex says something that rubs you the wrong way, resist the temptation to fire back. It’s completely appropriate not to respond to a snarky, sarcastic, or accusatory text message/email. Don’t respond to messages when you’re angry or upset—cool down first, give it some time, and then respond.
- Be respectful and direct in your communication. If there’s an issue that needs to be addressed, type out your message clearly identifying the problem and your proposed solution. Read over it once or twice before sending it to ensure you’ve struck the proper tone.
- Create a good parenting plan. Experienced family law attorneys have drafted hundreds of parenting plans—they should be able to direct and guide you so you can prevent many problems before they start. You need visitation and holiday schedules, communication plans, dispute resolution methods, extracurricular activity limitations, etc.
- Be flexible. Things don’t always go as planned, so be willing to be flexible and make adjustments when necessary. If you do this for your ex, hopefully, they’ll return the favor for you.
- Seek help if needed. If co-parenting is particularly challenging, consider seeking the help of a family therapist or joining a high-conflict co-parenting course to see if you and your ex can more permanently solve the communication problems you’re experiencing.
Fighting over custody is tricky, complex, emotionally draining, and something most people don’t have any prior experience or expertise in. Find the right attorney who can help you navigate this process. While you are navigating the process, remember that maturity in co-parenting with your ex goes a long way in the court’s eyes and is often rewarded.