Family Law

How do Judges Decide Child Custody in D.C.

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Making sense of child custody orders in the District of Columbia.

Custody Basics in the District of Columbia

A child custody order can grant both parents joint legal and physical custody, or may grant one parent sole legal and/or physical custody. Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make educational, medical, religious, or other legal decisions on a child’s behalf. A parent with legal custody also has the right to inspect a child’s school, dental, and mental health records and obtain information from teachers, counselors, or other health care providers who are involved with the child. Physical custody refers to where the child lives and spends time, including visitation with each parent.

Even when parents share joint physical and legal custody, their time with the child won’t be exactly equal. A joint physical custody arrangement might mean that you have your child 4 days each week, while your spouse has 3 days per week. The goal of a joint custody arrangement is to maximize each parent’s time with the child, not necessarily equalize it. A judge will designate one parent as the primary custodial parent. The custodial parent has the final say in medical, educational, legal or other decisions involving the child when the parents can’t agree.

Although there’s a presumption in favor of joint custody agreements, in some cases shared custody is not practical or possible. Specifically, in cases involving domestic violence or child abuse, there’s a rebuttable presumption that joint custody would not serve the child’s best interests. In these cases, a judge can order supervised visitation to protect a child’s safety, while still giving each parent time with the child. A designated third-party will supervise visits as long as the requirement is in place.

How Does a Judge Decide Custody?

A child’s best interests are at the heart of any custody decision. To determine the custody arrangement that will best meet a child’s needs, a judge will evaluate the following:

  • the child’s wishes, if the child is of a sufficient age and maturity
  • each parent’s desire for custody
  • the child’s relationship with each parent, siblings, or any other person who may emotionally or psychologically affect the child’s best interests
  • the child’s adjustment to home, school, and community
  • each parent’s mental and physical health
  • the child’s mental and physical health
  • either parent’s history of domestic violence or child abuse
  • each parent’s ability to communicate with the other and put the child’s needs first
  • each parent’s involvement in the child’s life prior to the custody proceeding
  • how custody may disrupt the child’s social and school life
  • each parent’s geographical proximity to one another
  • the demands of each parent’s employment
  • each parent’s other children
  • each parent’s ability to financially support a joint custody arrangement
  • the sincerity of each parent’s request for custody, and
  • any other factor the court deems relevant.

A judge will give special weight to a child’s preference if the child is of a sufficient age and intelligence level to form a mature opinion. However, a child’s custody wishes aren’t binding, but are one of several factors a judge may assess when determining a child’s best interests. A judge may consider other circumstances like one parent’s adultery or a child’s relationship with half-siblings if those circumstances will impact a child’s best interests.

Can Parents Create Their Own Custody Agreements?

Parents can create custody agreements on their own or try child custody mediation to help them reach an agreement. Whether or not you hire a professional to help with your agreement, you’ll need to ensure that your agreement addresses certain custody issues. Even if you and your spouse aren’t able to resolve all of your issues, it’s a good idea to submit a parenting plan to the court detailing your proposed custody arrangement. A custody agreement or parenting plan should address each parent’s rights and responsibilities, including:

  • the child’s residence
  • regular visitation schedule
  • holiday, birthday, and school vacation visitation schedule
  • transportation between visits
  • matters involving the child’s education
  • the child’s religious upbringing, if any
  • each parent’s access to the child’s educational, medical, psychiatric and dental treatment records
  • child support based on the needs of the child and the parent’s actual resources
  • communication between parents, and
  • medical and dental care, except in emergencies.

You can submit a finalized custody agreement to the court for review. Your written agreement should contain your agreed-upon terms and both parents’ notarized signatures. A judge will review your agreement for completeness and to ensure that it meets your child’s emotional and physical needs. If your agreement is incomplete, a judge could reject it and force you to attend a trial to decide custody.

Can I Modify Custody?

You can file a motion to modify custody when there’s been a substantial and material change in circumstances affecting your child’s best interests. Certain changes like a parent’s new job or remarriage won’t necessarily be enough to convince a judge to change your current custody arrangement. But major life changes, like one parent’s international relocation or a new career requiring extensive travel might justify a custody adjustment.

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