How Is Child Custody Determined?
Arizona has overhauled its custody laws in recent years, shifting to a "legal decision-making" and "parenting time" model rather than the previously used custody terminology.
This move that took effect in January of 2013 was meant to signal a shift toward prioritizing joint parenting instead of a model that trended toward "every other weekend" custody arrangements and mothers being automatically favored as the custodial parent.
Despite this shift in statutory language, legal decision-making is still effectively used to determine matters of child custody.
Namely, legal decision-making and parenting time determine which parents have the right to make certain decisions for the child and how much time each parent gets to spend with the child/children.
Here is how Arizona courts make determinations regarding legal decision-making and parenting time.
How Legal Decision-Making Is Determined
Arizona replaced legal custody with legal decision-making authority, which is similarly based on the best interests of the child.
As the name implies, legal decision-making permits parents to make important decisions about the child's life, which can include decisions concerning:
When deciding which parents will have this authority, the court will consider "all factors that are relevant to the child's physical and emotional well-being", as outlined by A.R.S. §25-403.
Some of the many factors explicitly mentioned by this Arizona statute are as follows:
The past, present and potential future relationship between each parent and their child
The child's interaction and interrelationship with parents, siblings and any other people who can significantly affect the child's best interest
The child's adjustment to their home, school and community environments
The wishes of the child if they are of a suitable age
The mental and physical health of both parents
Whether domestic violence or child abuse has been a part of home life
In effect, the court looks at a wide range of factors to determine who should have decision-making authority.
Once all relevant factors are taken into account, the court will either give one parent sole legal decision-making authority or both parents joint legal decision-making authority.
Sole legal decision-making authority is most similar to being granted sole custody, meaning one parent is given the authority to make major decisions about the child's life and welfare.
If joint legal decision-making is granted instead, then both parents must work together and come to an agreement on these important decisions jointly.
Parenting time, the other important part of the custody equation, determines how much time a parent has to physically spend with their child/children.
Courts make this decision based on the same "best interests of the child" factors outlined by A.R.S. §25-403.
Arizona parents are required by A.R.S. §25-403.02 to submit a proposed parenting plan if both parents cannot agree on a plan for legal decision-making and parenting time.
Courts will consider both plans when making a parenting time decision for parents who were unable to come to an agreement.
When courts make a decision on parenting time, it is important to note that the child's interests continue to be of the greatest importance.
For this reason, a court that orders joint legal decision-making will not necessarily order equal parenting time.
Similarly, just because one parent is granted sole legal decision-making does not mean that the parent without decision-making authority is not entitled to a meaningful relationship with the child.
Unless a parent is unfit to be with their child for reasons like substance abuse or child abuse, it is likely that both parents will be granted enough parenting time to continue a meaningful relationship with the child.
The precise amount of time, however, will be determined based on the child's best interests as always.
Schedule an appointment with a Family Law attorney in Phoenix at the Tyler Allen Law Firm, PLLC for more information about how Arizona's legal decision-making and parenting time laws could affect your case.