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The Basics of Child Custody Law in Florida

Although the issues of property division and spousal maintenance in a divorce proceeding can cause heated arguments between couples, issues concerning child custody are typically paramount. Florida law favors shared parental responsibility and having the children remain in contact with both parents, though one parent will maintain the primary residence. A court can, though, remove a child from the physical custody of a parent and order supervised visitation if there is evidence of neglect, sexual abuse or domestic violence.

Determining Primary Custody

In any dispute, the parties are encouraged to work out their differences but child custody is often an issue where both parties may be so entrenched in their positions that compromise is not possible at this point.

Custody consists of legal custody and physical custody. Joint legal custody is favored and usually is the standard, with both parents sharing in the major decisions governing the children’s education, religious upbringing, health, education and activities.

The most contentious issues are physical custody and time sharing. Though the court will seek to make this as equal as possible, one parent will generally be the primary custodian. Factors the court looks at include the following:

  • If a parent has actively participated in the child’s education, social and community activities. Does the parent attend parent-teacher conferences? Is the parent familiar with the child’s friends, teachers and health care providers?
  • What are the parent’s mental and physical health like? Is there evidence of drug and alcohol abuse in the home, domestic violence, or neglect? Is he or she involved in frequent casual relationships? Do they often leave the child with third parties, or anything else that disparages the other parent?
  • Can a parent provide a routine for the children including a schedule of doing homework, participating in sports or music lessons, provide nutritious meals, their own room, and a regular bedtime?
  • Do the parents live close to each other or does the child have to travel a considerable distance?
  • Is a parent non-cooperative, or consistently late with visitation or picking up or dropping off a child, or not communicating with the other parent regarding the child’s needs and activities?
  • Has a parent presented false allegations against the other parent regarding abuse, domestic violence or other misconduct?
  • Is the child old and mature enough to state a preference regarding primary custody?

The court looks for consistency in routine, and the cooperativeness of the parent in adhering to a time share plan as well. In many cases, the court will order joint custody or shared parental responsibility so that there is joint legal custody. Although, one parent will be the primary custodian, so that the child will have a primary home where he or she attends school, engages in community activities, and has a primary physician. The other parent will have visitation rights.

Legal Rights and Duties of Each Parent

Each parent has a legal duty to care for and to support their children. They also have certain rights, including:

  • The right to make decisions regarding the child’s schooling, residence, health, religion and discipline.
  • The right to make decisions regarding legal matters affecting the child
  • To be present with the child if the child is being questioned by police
  • If the child is under 18, the child must obtain parental consent to military enlistment and marriage
  • Required parental consent if the minor child wants an abortion though a waiver can be obtained
  • The right to be free from interference with child rearing
  • The right to time sharing or visitation if not the primary custodian

Regarding court decisions about custody, no parent has a right that supersedes the other. The court looks at various factors in determining primary custody, shared parental responsibility and joint legal custody.

Parents also have a responsibility to care for and protect their children, and to support them which includes things like:

  • Adequate clothing
  • Nutritional meals
  • Education
  • Health care
  • Dental care

Although one party may be more capable or financially able to provide these necessities, the other parent at least must maintain a minimum level of support when the child is visiting or in their custody.

There are occasions when the court can modify a parent’s rights if there is evidence of domestic violence, criminal behavior, substance abuse, neglect or abandonment. A court can order supervised visitation or remove custody from the primary custodian if it is in the best interests of the child to do so.

How Time Share is Decided

Disputes over time sharing typically involve one parent arguing for more time with the child. Florida law presumes that equal time sharing is in the best interests of the children and will seek to make that happen though one parent will be the primary custodian. The court has discretion in deciding a time share arrangement but will also look at these factors:

  • Do the parents respect each other and communicate regarding the child’s welfare?
  • Is a parent disparaging the other in front of or to the child or is trying to interfere with that relationship?
  • The financial status of each parent.
  • Health and mental health issues if any.
  • Is the home safe and secure and in a safe neighborhood?
  • What is the quality of the relationship with each parent?

It is always the needs of the child that is paramount when it comes to resolving issues of custody and time sharing. A parent who exhibits selflessness and shows evidence that the child’s welfare is the top priority may be awarded more time with the child.

Parenting Plans

Simply stated, a parenting plan is a mandatory legal document for divorcing parents with minor children that outlines how the child will be cared for after the divorce. It is a court order.  Time sharing is included in the plan along with other requirements:

  • How the parents will share their responsibility for providing the child’s daily needs including schooling, meals, bedtime, activities and health care.
  • The visitation or time sharing schedule including times of pick up or delivery, weekend and holiday visits, school and summer breaks, birthdays and other events. Generally, the child visits the non-residential parent at least one evening per week to a certain time and on alternate weekends.
  • The parent who will have the child on their health care plan.
  • How the parent will communicate with the child such as through cell phone or with third parties if daycare is used. Other modes to communicate with the child include email, skype or other video technology. There is to be no interference with or the denial of such communication.

Should you and your estranged spouse fail to reach an accord on the provisions, the court can appoint a parenting coordinator, whose fee is paid jointly by you and your spouse, to assist you in drafting a feasible and workable plan for you. Mediation is also possible short of having the court draft the plan for you.

Who Pays Child Support?

Every parent is required to support their children, married or not. The parent who is not the primary custodian or who spends less time with the child, if at all, is typically required to pay the parent who has primary residence a certain amount for monthly child support.

Like all states, child support is determined by written guidelines. The calculation includes the amount the parents would spend on the children if they were still intact and divide that amount between the parents based on their gross income. There are certain deductions that are allowed in determining the applicable income to be used.

You or your attorney can determine the amount of child support to be paid. If there is a dispute, then the parties must submit financial affidavits and complete a Child Support Guidelines Worksheet. The guidelines has a chart you can examine to determine the level of support that corresponds to your combined net income and the number of children.

Depending the number of hours the child is with the non-custodial parent, there may be additional calculations to determine the child support that will be paid. Considering parenting time in the calculations can be complicated so you should consult a divorce attorney to make these determinations for you.