Child custody battles are often the most emotional and detailed aspects of divorce. As a parent, the time you spend with your children is precious, so it's difficult to think about not seeing them everyday. You're ready to fight for substantial visitation rights, if necessary, but when it comes to putting a custody plan together, you have more questions than answers. What is a normal amount of visitation for a noncustodial parent? What types of details are included in a visitation schedule? How will I handle transportation? These questions and more need to be addressed. Continue reading to learn how a detailed visitation plan will help you and your child’s other parent avoid future trips back to court.
A child’s best interests are central to any custody or visitation decision. Judges handling custody disputes will consider a variety of factors, including the child’s age, the child’s needs, and the parents’ abilities to meet those needs.
Visitation is a matter of state law, but generally speaking, every state allows parents to exercise a reasonable amount of visitation with their children, which generally means enough time to establish and maintain a meaningful relationship. However, the definition of what constitutes a “reasonable” amount of time will vary depending on state rules and individual circumstances.
For example, in Utah, parents of school-age children are entitled to visit every other weekend and for at least 3 hours during the work week. A judge can award more visitation to a parent—if that would be in the child's best interests—but must at least award the minimum amount, unless special circumstances exist.
What is Included in a Typical Visitation Schedule?
Parents are free to come up with their own visitation plans or they can leave it up to a judge to decide. In either case, a judge will review the facts and sign off on the parents’ proposed plan or create a new visitation plan that serves the child’s best interests. If you're trying to create your own visitation schedule, you should consider and address the following factors in your plan:
A common visitation schedule will give the noncustodial parent overnight visits every other weekend and a few hours during the week. Depending on the child’s school schedule, a visitation order can give the noncustodial parent additional visitation time during longer vacation periods. Generally, overnight visits will be allowed, unless you show a judge that such visits aren’t in your child’s best interests.
Holiday and School Vacations
A visitation schedule should define which parent gets each specific holiday year over year. A simple way to accomplish this is by grouping holidays as the father’s holidays vs. the mother’s holidays in odd and even-numbered years. For example, your schedule could designate the current year as the father’s year to spend Christmas and Christmas break, July 4th, and Labor Day with the children, while the mother receives Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, and Spring Break with the kids. Generally, a visitation schedule would alternate each parent’s holiday visitation, meaning the mother would receive Christmas the following year.
Parents can assign longer school vacations in a similar way, alternating by year. Summer provides more flexibility, and your parenting terms can require you to meet, plan, and give notice for or request extended time with your children. Specifically, during a child’s summer vacation, one or both parents have the right to one or more uninterrupted weeks with the children.
Other Special Days
Parenting plans often recognize special days such as birthdays, Mother's Day, and Father's Day. Parents may alternate celebrating their child's birthday by year, and a visitation order can allow visits with the child on each parent's birthday. These types of visits are exceptions to your normal schedule and will take the place of a normal visit. So if Father’s Day falls on mom's usual day, dad will get the kids from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. instead.
The logistics of getting a child from one parent to the other is a critical piece of your visitation puzzle. You should define which parent is responsible for transportation costs and identify the times and locations of drop-offs and pick-ups. A lot will depend on the parents’ and children’s schedules and proximity. A typical schedule might require dad to pick up the kids on Friday at 5 p.m. for dad’s weekend visitation, but mom has to pick up the children on Sunday night when dad’s visitation is over.
Parents with a poor relationship may specify that visitation exchanges should occur only at a public place such as a park or gas station. More commonly, child pick-ups and drop-offs will occur curbside at the parent’s residence. If you and the child’s other parent live far away, make sure your parenting plan covers the details of transportation (car, air, train), which parent covers costs, and whether the children will be allowed to travel alone.
Can a Parent Lose Visitation Privileges?
Parental rights are constitutionally protected, but a parent can still lose these privileges. A child’s best interests can usurp a parent’s visitation rights in some cases where the parent poses a danger to the child’s well-being. If a parent's behavior is harmful, a court may limit that parent's access to the child by requiring that all visits be monitored. For example, a judge may order supervised visitation in the following circumstances:
- the parent committed domestic violence
- the parent has substance abuse problems
- the parent is emotionally unstable
- the parent has mental health or mental capacity issues, or
- the parent lives with someone who is abusive or poses a danger to the child.
Supervised visitation is usually temporary. Specifically, a visitation schedule may allow parents to gradually work their way up from supervised visitation to longer unsupervised visits with good behavior. Nevertheless, in certain cases where the danger posed by the parent won’t go away, a judge may make supervised visits permanent.
In more extreme circumstances, a parent can lose visitation rights altogether. Judges will typically terminate parental rights only as a last resort in situations where a parent has physically or sexually abused the child or another child and visitation won’t serve the child’s best interests.
If you have questions about custody or visitation schedules, please contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.
Questions for Your Attorney
- My ex-spouse doesn’t try to exercise any visitation with our kids. Can I ask a court to formally reduce my ex's visitation?
- Who covers transportation costs if my child’s other parent moves out of state? How will the visitation schedule change?
- My ex-spouse and I have reached our own agreement and don’t follow the visitation order. Is this a problem?