Overview of Custody in Wyoming
If divorcing parents can't agree on custody arrangements, a judge must decide. Ultimately, a judge’s goal is to determine the arrangement that best serves a child’s physical and emotional needs. A custody order will address both physical and legal custody.
Physical custody refers to where the child lives. In a joint or shared physical custody arrangement, the child usually spends approximately equal time living with each parent. However, joint custody doesn't have to be exactly equal time—this can also include other arrangements, such as a 40-60 split of time, where the child lives with one parent 40% of the time and the other parent 60% of the time. In a sole physical custody arrangement, the children spend substantially more or almost all of their time with just one parent, who is considered the primary or custodial parent.
Legal custody involves a parent’s right to make legal, medical, educational, and other major decisions on the child’s behalf. In most cases, parents will share legal custody and make these decisions together. If the parents are completely unable to cooperate, or there is another valid reason for sole legal custody, a court may order that only one parent make decisions on the child's behalf.
What Will a Judge Consider When Deciding Custody?
A child’s best interests are at the heart of any custody decision. A judge will examine your family dynamics, a child’s physical and emotional needs, and all other factors that impact your child’s best interests. Specifically, judges in Wyoming may look at the following:
- the child’s relationship with each parent
- each parent’s ability to adequately meet the child’s needs
- each parent’s competency and fitness to parent
- each parent’s willingness to accept parental responsibilities, including allowing a relationship between the child and other parent
- the parents’ geographical proximity to each other
- the parents’ ability to communicate regarding the child
- each parent’s physical and mental health
- any history of domestic violence or abuse, and
- any other factor the court deems relevant.
Even when parents share joint physical and/or legal custody, one parent will be designated as the custodial parent. The custodial parent has the final say on decisions involving the child when the parents can’t agree. However, Wyoming law requires both the custodial and noncustodial parent to have equal access to a child’s school or medical records, unless it wouldn’t be in the child’s best interests.
Judges prefer to maximize each parent’s time with a child when there’s no history of abuse and the parents can cooperate. A court may place limits on a parent’s visitation in cases involving abuse. A mutually-agreed upon third-party will supervise visits between the parent and child until a judge determines it’s in the child’s best interests to have traditional visitation.
Can Parents Reach Their Own Custody Agreements?
Parents can negotiate their own custody settlements or may use a mediator. Mediators can help couples find common ground and resolve their custody issues in some cases. However, mediators are not a replacement for an attorney’s advice. It’s important that you understand the effects of any custody agreement on your future rights and relationship with your child.
If you and your ex are able to reach a custody agreement, you must include your terms in a written document, sign it, and submit the agreement to a judge for approval. A judge may turn the agreement into an official court order if it's fair, complete, and serves your child’s best interests.
For example, if your agreement resolves legal custody but doesn’t include a visitation schedule, a judge may reject your agreement and set your case for trial. Generally, a complete custody agreement will address at least the following issues:
- physical and legal custody
- communication between parents
- communication between the child and parent when in the other parent’s care
- child support
- medical insurance, and
- visitation on holidays and school breaks.
If a judge approves your agreement, he or she will sign it and turn it into a court order. Each parent is bound by the custody order until a child reaches 18 (or later if the agreement prescribes) or the court modifies it.
When Can I Modify My Custody Order?
Either parent can file a motion to modify custody if it’s been several years since the original custody order was issued or there’s been a substantial and material change in circumstances. It’s expected that each parent’s circumstances may change over the years. Certain life changes like a new baby, new marriage, or a new job alone may not be enough to justify a change in custody.
For example, if your ex has sole physical custody, but took a new job that requires constant travel, you may be justified in requesting a change to the current custody arrangements. A judge will look at how the recent changes affect your child’s best interests. Typically, the court will schedule a hearing on a parent’s motion to modify custody. It’s important to come to the hearing prepared with all evidence and witnesses that support your case.