Any separation of two people who have a legal relationship is a difficult matter. Any divorce or other legal separation must arrange for the future of both parties. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in determining the custody of children.

The laws in Rockville and throughout the state assume that both parents have equal rights to raise their children. This includes both the rights of physical custody and the ability to make major decisions concerning that child’s welfare and future. Still, the plain fact is that both parents do not necessarily have an equal ability to provide the best life for that child. Because of this, courts are often forced to make difficult decisions concerning child custody that a parent may not perceive as fair.

A Rockville child custody lawyer could fight to convince a court that a child would be best served in your custody. This includes making arguments during divorces, custody hearings, temporary hearings regarding custody, other legal separations, and even to modify existing court orders when appropriate. A dedicated family attorney could help to provide both you and your child(ren) with the brightest possible future.

When is a Child Custody Hearing Necessary?

A child custody hearing is necessary anytime there is a dispute between two parents/parties with regard to access to and custody of minor children. The most common example of this is in a divorce and/or separation and where two unmarried parties share a minor child. If you are seeking a divorce in the state of Maryland and you have minor children, custody should be addressed by you and/or the courts.

Indeed, Md. Code, Family Law §5-203(d)(1) states that a court in a custody case has the express authority to award custody to either parent. Furthermore, these parents start on an equal footing; mothers no longer have maternal preference.

While a divorce may certainly be the most common source for a child custody hearing, in reality, any separation of parents could give rise to these matters. If two unwed parents decide to no longer live together, they must make arrangements for the care and custody of that child or children. The same can be said for parents who have never lived together. A court must keep the best interests of a child in mind during any custody battle. A Rockville attorney could help to promote your interests and the best interest of the child(ren) no matter the origin of the child custody hearing.

Common Issues in Child Custody Cases

The central purpose in any child custody case is for the court to make a determination as to what living arrangement will work best for the child. This includes deciding where that child will live, as well as granting the ability to make major decisions concerning that child’s welfare and future.

In legal terms, this is known as physical and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where and with whom the child lives. A court may grant sole physical custody, meaning that the child spends a majority of their time living with one parent while the other only has visitation.

Alternatively, and far more common, the court may create a joint or shared physical custody plan. These plans split living time between the two parents. Similar sole and joint plans apply to court decisions concerning legal custody: the right to decide how that child lives and who makes the decisions for that child or children.

The court will examine the fitness of both parents in making these decisions. Judicial criteria for determinations of child custody awards include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Any history of violence or abuse
  • Character and reputation of the parties
  • Desire of the parents and any agreements between them
  • Potentiality of keeping natural family relations
  • Preference of the child (depending on age and maturity)
  • Material opportunities affecting the future life of the child
  • Age, health and sex of the child
  • Residences of the parties and opportunity for visitation
  • Length of separation from the natural parent(s)
  • Prior voluntary abandonment or surrender of the child

A child custody lawyer who practices in the Rockville area could help people to present cases in court that convince a judge that they can provide the best home possible for their children.

Why a Parenting Plan is Essential in Rockville Custody Cases

A parenting plan is an agreement between the parents regarding custody and visitation with their child. Required under state law in every custody case, it defines each parent’s rights and responsibilities and how they will communicate with each other about their child. Parents may create this plan at any point in the legal process, although it is often generated during custody mediation.

Maryland courts have developed the  Maryland Parenting Plan Instructions and Maryland Parenting Plan Tool to assist parents in creating effective parenting plans in child custody disputes. The Tool recommends that parents consider specific issues when negotiating a plan for their child, including:

  • The child’s health, welfare, and stability
  • The child’s need for frequent, ongoing contact with parents who act in their best interests
  • How the parents will share child-rearing responsibilities
  • The child’s relationship with the parents, siblings, and extended family
  • How far apart the parents live from one another
  • Whether the parents can effectively communicate about their child
  • The child’s physical and emotional needs
  • The child’s preference regarding custody, if age-appropriate

The plan should essentially address how the parents will place their child’s needs above their own. Once the parties complete a parenting plan, they may submit it to a judge who will determine if it is in the child’s best interests. A capable child custody attorney in the area could ensure that the parenting plan becomes part of a legally binding custody order.

Children Generally Do Not Testify in Child Custody Disputes

A primary concern for many parents facing a custody dispute is whether their child will be required to appear in court and state which parent they want to live with. Clearly, testifying against a parent could be traumatic for a child, and judgments attempt to avoid this whenever possible. To do so, a judge may appoint a ‘Best Interest Attorney’ to represent the child in a custody case.

The goal of a child’s Best Interest attorney is to protect the child’s interests. Formerly known as a ‘guardian ad litem,’ a Best Interest Attorney makes an independent assessment of what custody arrangement would best meet a child’s needs and advocates for the child in court. The attorney is not bound by what the child wants, and in some cases, they might advocate for a position that is different from the child’s preferred custody schedule.

A Best Interest Attorney does not represent either party; their sole interest is preserving their child client’s well-being. A judge may select a specific attorney for the role or permit the parents’ lawyers to do so. Each parent may be required to pay a portion of the Best Interest attorney’s fees.

Unless they believe it is necessary to disclose certain information to ensure their client’s safety, the Best Interest Attorney should attempt to keep their communications with the child confidential. This is done to avoid putting the child ‘in the middle’ of the parent’s dispute and negatively impacting the parent-child relationship. A lawyer well-versed in family law could explain the role of the Best Interest Attorney in Rockville custody disputes.

Do Unmarried Fathers Have Custody Rights?

In Maryland, courts do not favor mothers over fathers in custody disputes, and state custody laws are primarily similar for married and unmarried parents.

However, while a married man is automatically presumed to be the legal father when his child is born, an unmarried man is not. A father who is not married to the child’s mother at the time of the birth may establish paternity before he can seek child custody, if there is an issue with regard to paternity.

Under Maryland Code Annotated Family Law Article §5-3A-06, paternity can be established by naming a man on a child’s birth certificate, completing a declaration of paternity with the mother’s consent, or submitting to court-ordered genetic testing. Once a man is determined to be the child’s legal father, Maryland Family Law Article §5-203 provides him and the mother equal rights to pursue custody.

A healthy and stable father-child relationship can benefit a child in many ways. A practiced child custody attorney understands the significance of paternity establishment and could guide a parent through the legal process.

Grandparent Custody Laws in Rockville

It is not uncommon for grandparents to play a significant role in their grandchildren’s lives. In some cases, a grandparent may be more like a parent, caring for a grandchild on a day-to-day basis because the parents are unwilling or unable to. When this happens, a grandparent may wish to secure legal and physical custody of their grandchild to provide a stable and loving home for them.

The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly stated that parents have a ‘fundamental right to raise their children as they see fit, without interference from grandparents and other third parties. The burden of proving that a child is better served in the custody of a grandparent is extremely high. Accordingly, a grandparent seeking custody of a grandchild over the parents’ objections could encounter significant legal challenges.

To pursue custody successfully, a grandparent must first prove that the parents are unfit to raise their child, that they are what is called ‘de-facto’ parents, or that exceptional circumstances warrant custody to the grandparent. An exceptional circumstance could be that a grandparent has been the primary caregiver for the child throughout their life, but a parent suddenly seeks to resume a parenting role.

When considering a grandparent’s request for custody, a judge may assess numerous factors to reach a decision that prioritizes a child’s best interests.

Some of these include:

  • How long the child has been away from their biological parents
  • The child’s age when the grandparent assumed their primary care
  • The effect on a child of a custody change
  • How long a parent waited before attempting to resume caring for the child
  • The sincerity of the parent’s request to maintain or regain custody
  • The stability of the parent’s home versus the grandparent’s home

A grandparent may feel the need to file a custody petition immediately to protect their grandchild in some situations. However, before seeking custody, a grandparent needs to understand state laws governing a grandparent’s rights. Accordingly, grandparents should consult a knowledgeable child custody lawyer in Rockville who could explain these rights and persuasively present their case to a judge.

Can Rockville Child Custody Orders Be Modified?

After a judge issues a custody order, the parents must abide by it unless their there is an emergency pertaining to the child, such that the child is in immediate danger or the parent files an emergency motion with the court seeking to change custody. If circumstances have changed for either the parent, the child, or both, a parent may request a modification of the existing custody order.

To successfully pursue a change in custody, a parent must prove that the changed circumstances are ‘substantial or material’ and affect the child’s overall well-being. Not every change will satisfy this requirement. For example, a parent’s remarriage alone might not be a substantial change. However, if the child and the new stepparent have a contentious relationship, a judge may consider modifying custody to allow the child to spend more time with the other parent.

Other examples of substantial or material changes could include:

  • One parent relocates and the existing custody arrangement is no longer workable
  • A parent changes job and their new work schedule does not permit them to spend as much time with the child
  • A parent develops a mental illness or substance abuse problem that impacts their ability to care for the child
  • The child develops special medical or educational needs that one parent is better equipped to handle
  • The parents cannot make joint decisions about their child’s welfare
  • One parent consistently refuses to comply with the terms of a custody order
  • The child is not doing well under the current custodial arrangement.

Judges must make an initial determination that a material change in circumstances has occurred before they can consider whether a change in custody is in a child’s best interests. A diligent lawyer consistently works with clients in Rockville to help them determine what might constitute a material change in circumstances justifying a custody modification.

What if a Parent Repeatedly Disobeys a Custody Order?

Once a judge issues a custody order, both parents are legally bound by it. Generally, most will comply with the order’s terms even if they disagree with them. However, there are cases in which a parent simply will not follow the order, and the other parent must take legal action to ensure the safety and well-being of their child.

A parent who disobeys a child custody order may face contempt of court charges. Contempt is generally defined as a deliberate violation of a court order. Example of actions that could result in a contempt finding include:

  • Failing to return the child to the other parent for their custodial time
  • Speaking negatively about the other parent to the child – if this can be proven
  • Refusing to cooperate with the other parent when deciding matters affecting the child
  • Failing to take the child to their scheduled activities
  • Interfering with the child’s relationship with the other parent or their siblings
  • Undermining the other parent when they attempt to discipline the child
  • Changing the child’s medical providers without the other parent’s consent
  • Enrolling the child in religious education or training against the other parent’s wishes
  • Enrolling the child in a new school without complying with the parties’ court order.

Contempt charges are serious and could result in sanctions against the non-compliant parent. A judge may order them to pay fines, provide make-up time for any missed custodial time, and pay the other party’s legal fees for pursuing the contempt. In extreme cases, a court may transfer custody to the other parent if a motion to modify custody has also been filed.

Because court sanctions can be severe and negatively impact their relationship with their child, a parent facing contempt charges is well-advised to seek assistance from a capable child custody attorney. The lawyer could explain Maryland’s contempt process and represent the parent in court.

Reach Out to a Rockville Child Custody Attorney Today

As much as a child custody case may seem like a judgment on the ability of parents, in truth, the court must make a decision that is in the best interests of the child(ren). This involves examining the fitness of both parents and awarding both physical custody and the right to make decisions for that child. This can result in parenting plans that may not fit your goals.

A Rockville child custody lawyer may be able to help you to fight in court for a parenting plant that fits your needs and that is best for your child(ren). This includes pursuing parental rights during any divorce or separation as well as filing motions to modify existing orders if changes in circumstances demand a reexamination. The outcome of a child custody hearing could affect the future of both you and your child(ren) for years to come. Let a dedicated lawyer help you. Call today.