Most people believe that child custody refers to which parent gets the children. In fact, custody refers to three parenting roles:
The first is a question of residence. Where and with whom will the children live?
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The third question is one of guardianship. Who is in charge of the children? Who will make important decisions concerning their welfare?
Custody is in other words, about parenting. Yet the term has come to stimulate fear and anxiety and to signal the disenfranchisement of one parent. The reason for this reaction is in the win/lose portrait of the adversary system. In the past when divorce was fault-based and trial labeled one of the parents as "guilt" a custody award to the winner gave that parent absolute power over the children. That power could be used to punish the other parent by cutting him or her off from the children.
Today, courts take a more benevolent approach to the issue of custody. Even when custody is awarded to one parent, the law requires the judge to protect the parental role of the other parent with adequate rights of visitation. Over the prior ten years, some states have altered their custody laws to eliminate the win/lose connotation of custody. Eleven states at this time and the number is growing, have adopted laws expressing a clear preference for joint custody, an arrangement in which the full parental rights of both parents are preserved and enhanced. Some states have gone as far as to abolish sole custody. Others have made joint custody a legal presumption. Washington State divorce laws do neither.
For now, the important thing to know is that as a couple you can negotiate any parenting arrangement you wish as long as the arrangement takes care of the children. How you label the arrangement is not important. You do not have to use the words "custody" and "visitation." The most important thing is that you negotiate a parenting agreement that realistically reflects your strengths and needs and the needs of your children. If you can negotiate such an agreement and are able to live by it and be committed to it, the court will accept it with open arms. Judges do not like making decisions about your children and prefer that you can make them.
Three concepts you need to understand
sole custody: this refers to a custody arrangement in which one parent, the sole custodian parent, is essentially in charge of the child. Typically, the child live with that parent full time, except when visiting the other parent. The sole custodial parent has the exclusive right to make important decisions about the child and is the only legal guardian of the child.
Joint custody: this concept became popular in the late 1970's and most states now recognize it. Joint custody means that neither parent is the sole custodial parent. Custody is literally with both parents. In a genuine joint custody arrangement, both parents share equally, parental rights and responsibilities. The children alternate their residence between mother and father according to a negotiated schedule, and both parents concur on important decisions.
Shared parental responsibility: this term is used by statute in some states to replace the term custody. The term is broad enough to include quite a variety of arrangements. Thus, it refers to any degree of shared parental responsibility. It expresses a desirable objective, that parenting should continue by both parents. Be aware that shared parental responsibility also means that specifics must be spelled out in detail as to who is responsible for what.
The court serves as the parent of last resort. Generally the court never interferes when parents agree. However, if the parents cannot agree on basic custody and visitation arrangements, the court will decide. The court retains this role until the child reaches adulthood.
Custody fights do not occur prior to divorce. Sometimes an existing custody agreement breaks down over time after the divorce, and one parent petitions the court for a change. The court can alter custody and visitation arrangements upon petition if the judge agrees that the alteration would be in the "best interest of the children."
the law states that it is the duty of both parents to support their children according to their ability. In most cases children live principally with one parent, and the other parent makes child-support payments to the parent with primary residence of the children. Here are some frequently asked questions about child support.
How much support should be paid?
Usually the amount of child support paid is contingent on the needs of the children, the lifestyle of the family, the number of children, and the expenses and income of the parents. A couple of years ago the federal government required all states to adopt guidelines to advise judges on child-support standards. As a result, washington state now has such guidelines. Even with these guidelines, you can still negotiate an agreement, or, as with any contested issue, the court will decide. The state guidelines should be used as a minimum standard. That is, you should not have less and you may decide that more is necessary.
Can the amount be changed?
Child support can be altered by the court upon petition by a parent if the court finds that altered circumstances warrant it. The legal system recognizes that some flexibility is required to meet changed circumstances.