The basics of child custody and parenting plans

Determining child custody agreements in a divorce is one of the most difficult and emotionally involved aspects of many divorces. Montgomery County's divorce rate is higher than the state average with 6.7 people per 1,000 divorcing in 2011 as compared to 4.3 people per 1,000 for the entire state of Tennessee. Considering that approximately 50 percent of all divorces include minor children, child custody, visitation and parenting plans are frequently needed components to a divorce.

The world of child custody is anything but black and white. There are many nuances and different ways in which courts seek to provide an environment that is in the best interest of children. If you are facing a divorce and you have minor children, you should understand some of the basics surrounding child custody in Tennessee.

What is legal vs physical custody?

There are two primary types of custody to be awarded in a divorce. The first is legal custody. Legal custody identifies which parent will have the authority to make decisions regarding health care, education and the general well-being of the children. Physical custody determines where the children will reside and when.

Both legal and physical custody can be awarded to only one parent. This is known as "sole" custody. Sole physical custody is also sometimes referred to as "full custody". In these situations, children live solely with only one parent. The other parent may or may not have visitation rights.

The two forms of custody can be awarded to both parents. Such situations are referred to as joint custody. In such cases, the father and mother are given the right and expected to make decisions jointly for their children.

There can also be situations where one parent is awarded sole physical custody but the two parents share joint legal custody or vice versa. If both legal and physical custody are to be awarded jointly, the situation is commonly referred to as simply "joint custody" or "shared custody." These arrangements are most effective when both parents are able to work well together in the best interest of their children.

Best interest standard

According to Tennessee statutes, courts must make custody determinations in the best interest of the child. In making these decisions and adhering to this standard, judges consider a number of factors. Courts examine the ability of the parent to provide the child with basic necessities including clothing, food and education; the love and emotional connection between the child and his or her parents; the stability of the family; and place an emphasis on continuity in the child's life.

Other factors relevant to the best interest of the child include:

  • The parents' physical and mental health.
  • The home, community and school record of the child.
  • Child's preference.
  • Any evidence of emotional or physical abuse to the child or another person.
  • Character or behavior of others who may live in or visit the child's home.

Courts also consider how each parent has cared for the child in the past and how well that parent may cope with additional parenting responsibilities in the future.

The importance of parenting plans

Once custody is determined, the next step in the process is to outline the actual parenting plan. It will involve an extremely detailed schedule of which the parent the children will be with at stated times including holidays, birthdays and vacations. It can be as granular as to identify an exchange location if necessary.

The parenting plan is a tool that is used to provide some structure to the lives of children and to prevent future disputes about the childrens' whereabouts at certain times.

Working for children

Tennessee courts understand the complexities surrounding minor children in a divorce and laws are developed with the best interest of children in mind. Courts are tasked with creating plans that permit both parents to participate as fully as possible in the lives of their children.

If you have young children still at home and are facing or even in the midst of a divorce, you should have a consultation with an experienced family law attorney. Doing so as early as possible in the process is the best way to help provide the most stable outcome for you and your children.