Concept of divorce and custody child

In Maryland, both of a child’s natural parents are presumed to be their natural custodians. When parents separate, divorce, or have never been married, it may be necessary for a Maryland court to decide how and when each parent spends time with the children (physical custody), who has a say in important decisions about the children (legal custody), and other child custody factors.

How do courts make these momentous decisions? What are the most important factors in child custody determinations? In this blog post, we will discuss the Maryland child custody factors and how to improve your chances of getting the best custody arrangement for your child.

The Maryland “Best Interest Factors”

In Maryland, as in other states, custody determinations are made “in the best interest of the child.” What exactly does that mean? Generally, the court must consider a variety of “best interest” factors established by statute or case law. The Maryland child custody factors include:

  • Who is the primary caregiver? In other words, who is the person who takes care of the many day-to-day tasks involved in raising a child: preparing meals, getting them ready for school, making playdates and doctor appointments, and comforting the child when they are scared or hurt?
  • What are the child’s age, gender, and health?
  • Are the parents fit? Is a parent mature and responsible enough to prioritize the child’s needs? Has a parent abused a partner or the child, or allowed the child to witness abuse?
  • What is the character and reputation of each parent? Whether a parent is generally considered an upstanding citizen or an unsavory character makes a difference in custody determinations.
  • Is there an existing custody agreement between the parents? If there is, have both parents honored it, or has one parent disregarded the agreement unless it was convenient for them?
  • Will the parent maintain the child’s family relationships? A child’s family is more than just their parents. Will one parent help facilitate the child's relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other relatives on the other parent’s side of the family (and also with the child’s relationship with the other parent), or cut the family off from the child?
  • Does the parent have the financial resources to provide for the child’s material needs? Parents are not penalized for being lower-earning, but parents should be able to ensure the child has the basics: adequate food, clothing, and shelter.
  • Has one parent previously abandoned the child or surrendered custody?
  • Has one parent been separated from the child for any length of time? The reason and the length of the separation could affect whether it is in the child’s best interest to live with that parent.
  • Where do the parents live relative to each other? How close do they live for purposes of visitation and helping the child spend time with other family members? Which parent lives closest to the child’s school?
  • What are the parents’ religious views? This factor is considered if the parent’s religious beliefs and conduct affect the child’s physical or emotional well-being.
  • Is a parent disabled? Like religion, a parent’s disability or health issue is considered only if it would have an impact on the child’s well-being.
  • Does the child have a preference regarding custody? Children’s preferences should be taken into account during custody determinations. Judges rarely ask for input from children younger than seven; the older and/or more mature a child is, the more likely their input is to be considered. Children 16 and older can petition the court on their own for a change of custody. Maryland courts frown on parents pushing their children to express a preference regarding custody, and often communicate with children outside parents’ presence to avoid this pressure. However, courts must generally record this interview for the parents.

In short, there are many things that Maryland courts take into account when deciding who should get custody of a child. An experienced family law attorney can make sure that a court has the information it needs to make a decision that is more favorable to you. If there is a court-ordered custody evaluation in your case, your attorney can prepare you to make the most positive impression.

Joint Custody in Maryland

Most of the time, children benefit from having a strong relationship with both parents. Whenever possible, courts prefer that parents work together to co-parent their children through a joint custody arrangement. Parents may reach their own custody agreement and parenting plan, which the court will generally approve. However, there are times when the court needs to decide whether parents should be awarded joint custody.

When considering whether to award joint custody, Maryland courts consider, in addition to the child custody factors listed above:

  • The capacity of the parents to communicate with each other and reach shared decisions regarding the child
  • The willingness of the parents to share custody of the child
  • The relationship between the child and each parent
  • What the parents prefer regarding custody, and any previous custody agreements between the parties
  • The potential for joint custody to disrupt the child’s schooling and social life
  • The demands of each parent’s employment
  • The sincerity of each parent’s request for joint custody
  • The parents’ respective financial statuses
  • The benefit to the parents of joint custody

As with other child custody factors in Maryland, the priority of a court in deciding whether to award parents joint custody is what will be in the best interest of the child.

Supervised Visitation and Sole Custody

If a Maryland court finds that there is a reasonable basis on which to believe one of a child’s parents has abused or neglected the child, the court may award sole custody to the other parent with the non-custodial parent having supervised visitation. Supervised visitation allows the non-custodial parent and child to maintain a relationship, while protecting the child’s physical and emotional well-being. However, there are some situations in which it is necessary to deny the abusive parent custody and visitation (access) altogether.

If circumstances change such that the court determines there is no further likelihood that the parent will abuse or neglect the child, restrictions on visitation may be removed.

Modifying Child Custody Arrangements in Maryland

A child custody order may be in effect for nearly two decades. During that time, the family’s circumstances and the child’s needs are likely to change, making the original order no longer ideal for the family. Parents may agree to modify custody and have the court approve their agreement, giving it the force of a court order. If parents cannot agree on a custody modification, one parent may petition the court to modify custody or access.

A court will grant a modification if the petitioner can show that there has been a material change in circumstances affecting the best interest of the child since the previous custody order was entered. A material change might be one parent’s move out of state; a change in a parent’s work or travel schedule that affects their ability to be present for the child; or a significant change in how the parent treats the child. It might also be something related to the child, such as a health condition, recently surfaced behavioral issues, or other changed needs that impact the schedule.

In addition to showing a material change in circumstances, the petitioner must also show that the proposed modification is in the child’s best interests.

To learn more about the Maryland child custody factors or to get help with a child custody determination, enforcement, or modification, contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation.

Categories: Child Custody