What You Need to Know About Florida Custody Laws Before Going to Court

One of the most contentious and difficult parts of divorce can involve a couple’s children. While the best interests of the kids is supposed to be the main goal of negotiating custody arrangements, it may happen that your child’s other parent is not in favor of an equitable parenting plan or is not fit for an equal time-sharing situation. That can make the process much more challenging, and as you move through it, you will find that there’s a lot to learn about Florida custody laws. Here’s an overview of what you should know.

What is “Custody” and How is it Awarded?

The first thing to know about Florida custody laws is that the state considers the term “custody” to be outdated. Instead of discussing custody or the custodial parent, you’ll talk about time-sharing and parental responsibility. These terms are supposed to reflect the fact that raising children is a shared responsibility regardless of your marital status.

That means that you’ll have two options in Florida for what was formerly known as custody.

  • You can share parental responsibility, and make joint decisions for your child’s welfare.
  • You (or your former spouse) can have sole parental responsibility and be the only person to make medical, educational, and religious choices for your child.

In Florida, shared parental responsibility is the norm unless there are circumstances that make one parent unfit or unable to agree on these important decisions. In fact, Florida is one of the fairest states when it comes to awarding 50/50 time-sharing.

What Role Does the Judge Play in Determining Parental Responsibility?

In many cases, both parties can work out the parenting plan and determine how time is shared. However, if parents cannot agree on how their child should be educated, what medical treatments should be administered to the child or any other important life decision, then a Florida judge will become involved.

The judge begins with the assumption that both parents want to be equally involved in the child’s life. Both sides can present evidence that backs up their point of view, and present their preferred parenting plan and time-sharing arrangement. The judge tried to look past any contentiousness between divorcing parties and determine what will be in the child’s best interests. He or she will consider several factors, including:

  • Mental and physical health of each parent, including any substance abuse issues.
  • Age of the child and, if old enough, his or her wishes.
  • Any evidence of excessive discipline or abuse by one parent.
  • Stability, such as keeping a child with siblings or at his or her current school.
  • Cultural and religious considerations.
  • The suitability of one parent to better deal with any special needs of the child.
  • The geographic location of each parent.

It is very unlikely that a judge will determine that one parent is so “bad” that he or she cannot play some role in the child’s life. However, the ideal situation is when the parents come to a reasonable agreement for sharing responsibility and the judge does not have to intervene.

What is Mediation and How Does It Work with Florida Custody Laws?

Before getting a judge involved, most courts will recommend working with a mediator to resolve differences of opinion and issues with establishing a parenting plan. The mediator is a neutral third party who can evaluate each parental responsibility case individually and help the parents work through each area of contention. Both private mediators and court-appointed mediators are available in the state of Florida.

Mediated cases are usually resolved more quickly than those where a judge must make a decision. Many private mediators have some experience in family law or are attorneys, and can offer legally sound options to divorcing spouses regarding their time-sharing of children.

Do I Need to Have a Parenting Plan?

In Florida, parents who are no longer married or living together must have a parenting plan that spells out who has responsibility for decisions involving the child and when and how that child will live with each parent. The more detailed the parenting plan is, the more successful it will likely be. The plan must include some basics, such as:

  • How each parent will manage day-to-day child-raising tasks and how issues that come up will be resolved.
  • How the child will share time between both parents.
  • Which parent is responsible for medical decisions and care or how that will be shared.
  • Which parent will make educational decisions and which parent’s address will be used in the case of school boundaries.
  • How decisions about the child’s activities will be made.
  • How each parent will communicate with the child when he or she is at the other parent’s residence.
  • How pickups and dropoffs will be handled.

How Difficult is it to Modify Custody Arrangements?

If you live with a parenting plan and find that it is no longer working for your needs or those of your child, you can petition the courts for a change. You will be asked to provide proof of a change in circumstances that make the alterations to the parenting plan necessary. Typically, it will cost you in court and attorney fees to make modifications, so it’s important to do the best job you can on your original parenting plan.

Will I Need Legal Help to Create My Parenting Plan?

You never know when custody issues will crop up, and it can be wise to have experienced legal help from a qualified family law attorney as you craft your parenting plan or work through other important decisions. If you don’t have an attorney knowledgeable in Florida custody laws, it may backfire and cost you both money, decision-making power, and, most importantly, time with your children.

Florida Law Advisers can help you navigate the challenges of Florida custody laws and ensure you get the best possible outcome for your time-sharing and parental responsibility-sharing after your divorce. Contact us today for more information on how we can help.