Looking for the Best Child Custody Lawyer in Phoenix Arizona or Scottsdale Arizona
Experienced Phoenix child custody lawyers provide knowledgeable advice and skilled representation which can assist you in your pursuit of a fair custody, or joint custody arrangement. Resolution and visitation disputes in Phoenix child custody cases requires parents to act rationally in their child’s best interests at a time when they are often facing overwhelming stress.
Every year in the U.S., approximately one million children see their families changed through divorce. The ongoing health and emotional well-being of these children depends greatly upon how their parents communicate and interact after the break-up. In our experience, child custody matters are among the most contentious in family law. To help your child through this potentially life-changing event, you need to understand the basics of how physical custody works in Arizona law. Whether you’re in Phoenix, or anywhere else in Arizona, you need the help of an expert divorce attorney when dealing with child custody issues.
Your child is as much a part of your separation or divorce as you and the other parent are. Even though you expect some challenges, when your child’s welfare and upbringing become the Court’s focus, the stress can be overwhelming. Stay calm. Be rational. Take matters one at a time. But don’t be caught unprepared for family court proceedings.
The typical child custody case may involve mediation, child custody evaluation, proposing a parenting plan, calculating child support, and serious negotiations with the other party. Will you win the relationship you desire with your son or daughter? This is what the proceedings will determine.
Is anything more important than your child’s future? Start building your case by reading everything you can about Arizona child custody law. Although we touch on numerous points in this article with links to in-depth information on our website, you should also take our FREE Arizona e-Custody Course. Request our Arizona Child Custody Essentials book. Keep reading, podcasting, and searching our blog for actual case summaries.
There is a big learning curve to child custody. Make use of precious planning time by taking this one small step – talk to a child custody attorney. Knowledgeable advice and skilled representation from an experienced family lawyer will put you on track to a fair, desirable custody arrangement. Attorneys with Stewart Law Group represent spouses in divorce as well as unmarried parents seeking custody. We assist clients on the full range of family law issues: Legal decision-making, parenting time, child relocation, parenting plan modification, child support, and more.
Note: Although “child custody” is a commonly used term, Arizona law specifies legal decision-making and parenting time when addressing children’s issues.
What legal right do you have to custody? The U.S. Constitution protects a parent’s right to custody of his or her minor child as a substantial fundamental constitutional liberty interest. A parent’s right to raise his or her child should not be interfered with unless necessary to protect the child’s welfare. Against relatives or third parties, the natural parent is entitled to custody in an initial proceeding. The exception? A finding of parental unfitness.
Most contested custody cases are between biological parents, whether married or unmarried. There is no legal presumption favoring one parent over the other because of the parent’s or the child’s sex. Nor does Arizona recognize a maternal “tender years” preference to raising young children. In practice, however, a judge may be more inclined to place a baby or young child with the mother, particularly if Mom has been the primary caregiver.
For parents who are not married to each other, paternity must be established before obtaining child custody.
To begin communicating your wishes for custody, you need a working vocabulary. Three essential legal terms are defined in Arizona law:
Legal decision-making is the parent’s right and responsibility to make non-emergency legal decisions for the child. The four pillars of legal decision-making are “education, health care, religious training, and personal care decisions.” A.R.S. § 25-401(3). In some other jurisdictions, this is referred to as legal custody. These responsibilities may be shared (joint legal decision-making) or made only one parent’s obligation (sole legal decision-making).
What if parents with joint legal custody were to disagree? Even though jointly responsible for making major decisions for the child, one parent may be granted final decision-making over one of the four pillars. Say, for example, the parents have joint legal decision-making, but the father makes final decisions on the child’s education while the mother makes final decisions on religious upbringing. (Are you the Dad? Do some reading about father rights in Arizona law.)
Parenting time is the specific day, weekend, week, holiday, or school vacation that the parent has the child with him or her. This represents the parent’s access to the child according to the schedule in their parenting plan. Your parenting time responsibilities include making routine child care decisions along with sheltering, feeding, and clothing the child while with you. Be mindful that joint legal decision-making does not ensure equal parenting time.
Seldom is a parent denied parenting time access. If the court is convinced a risk of harm or danger to the child exists, then a parent’s drug or alcohol abuse, criminal activity, child abuse or neglect, domestic violence or mental health problems may require restricted, monitored, or supervised parenting time. The supervisor could be a relative, family friend, social worker, or mental health professional. Depending upon the circumstances, supervised access could take place in the visiting parent’s home or at a neutral location, such as the office of a family counselor. Restrictions on access are often phased-out by the court’s order once the parent has established his or her stability and reliability around the child.
When spouses agree on parenting issues, they include those terms in their parenting plan. Every plan must be in the child’s best interests. The plan is submitted to the judge. Once approved, the plan becomes binding and is enforceable. If parents do not reach an agreement, however, then a custody trial will be necessary. The Court will impose a parenting plan on the parties. The parenting plan is best described by what it contains. At a minimum it should:
See A.R.S. § 25-403.02.
There’s good reason for parents to start working toward as many agreements as possible early in the process. The more issues they resolve, the less is left to judicial discretion. The less uncertainty, the more stability for the child. What happens if parents agree to almost everything in the plan? The court decides any missing elements for them. The judge also has discretion to include additional terms when deemed necessary to promote and protect the child. The court could order supervised parenting time, for instance, or random drug testing. Every child custody case is unique, so the parenting plan should be nicely tailored to fit the family’s needs.
There are state and federal statutes limiting a court’s jurisdiction and authority to enter orders in child custody proceedings. Arizona’s Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) provides the test for establishing a child’s “home state” for purposes of asserting Arizona jurisdiction, among other things. On the federal side, the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA) likewise addresses jurisdictional issues when custody is of interstate concern, preventing another state from entering enforceable custody orders when Arizona has already established home state jurisdiction over the child. With enforcement generally, the parent who fails to comply with the family law judge’s temporary or permanent custody order may be held in contempt of court and sanctioned.
The time frame for bringing claims or motions involving legal decision-making and parenting time extends throughout the child’s minority. A custody petition may be filed independently or may be joined with another domestic relations action, such as a divorce or legal separation. After a custody order is entered, the Court retains continuing jurisdiction until the child is 18 years old or graduates from high school if older. Legal decision-making or parenting time orders may be modified or vacated under certain circumstances.
Statistics bear out that custody arrangements are best determined by mothers and fathers through parenting plan agreements (or co-parenting agreements). Joint child-rearing can truly be cooperative when parents own their plan. A voluntary written agreement in the child’s best interests – where both parties are totally invested in the plan – offers the greatest opportunity for successful co-parenting and a happy, well-adjusted child.
Arizona’s child custody proceedings consistently emphasize alternative dispute resolution (or ADR). Expected to give their best efforts, parents are encouraged to work together, settle differences reasonably, and arrive at a voluntary co-parenting arrangement if they can.
A custody trial may be necessary because spouses remain at loggerheads or simply cannot decide what they should do. Custody litigation is particularly stressful, more costly than settlement generally, and ultimately puts the judge in control. Fortunately, only a small percentage of family law cases actually go to trial. That is because numerous ADR opportunities are made available to parents – namely mediation, negotiation, and settlement conferences. Arriving at a mutual custody agreement also helps the child adapt to a post-divorce lifestyle without the anguish associated with litigation between parents.
Most parents compromise on custody without judicial intervention. Prior to permanent or temporary orders, spouses have co-equal rights to the physical possession of their child. Until there is a written document establishing the parents’ respective rights and responsibilities, custody arrangements are largely in flux and can be changed on a whim by either parent. Informal custody arrangements may work for a time, but they are not enforceable like a court order is. They can create additional problems, too. What are the alternatives when, for instance, a parent relocates with the child without notifying the other parent? Or one parent obstructs the other parent’s access to the child for some reason or no reason?
Parents have much to think about. There are practical matters, financial decisions, and emotional realities as well as child centric basis. To help you along, check out our child custody FAQs and look through the governmental guidelines.
When parents are not in agreement regarding their children, the Court must decide all outstanding custody issues at trial. The judge considers a range of factors, such as the parents’ stability, any child abuse or neglect, known drug or alcohol problems, and much more.
Several principles apply in custody litigation. First, determining what is in the child’s best interests requires in-depth examination of parents’ past and present conduct, the best predictor of how they’ll behave in the future.
Second, the judge has wide discretion in determining custody. The judge’s broad discretion stems, in part, from observing firsthand the demeanor of both spouses and all witnesses. The Court will also rely heavily on the child custody evaluator’s report.
Third, review of the family law judge’s final rulings and orders is very limited. Appeals courts are unwilling to substitute their judgment of the facts for that of the judge who personally presided over the proceedings.
Fourth, the child is certainly the focus of the proceedings, but his or her participation is not a given. Letting a child participate at trial could be traumatic. The child may be too young or emotionally fragile to comprehend what is happening or the reasons for the questions asked. You will learn about the impact separation and custody proceedings could have on a child when you participate in the parent education program class.
The child custody factors mentioned earlier cover matters that could affect the child’s physical, mental, emotional, moral, and spiritual development. Take a little time to familiarize yourself with these factors and discuss details with your attorney. The child’s age and developmental needs are very important to the analysis. Each parent’s caretaking abilities, home environment, and time actually available to spend with the child are examined. The Court considers the child’s relationship with each parent and with siblings. A.R.S. § 25-403. The weight, or importance, associated with each factor is discretionary for the judge.
In Arizona, a minor child does not choose which parent to live with. Children do not always know what is best for them and frequently change their minds. Choosing between Mom and Dad also puts too much pressure on a youngster. But that is not to say a teenager’s or tween’s desires should be ignored. The child’s wishes are a factor, but are not determinative. The judge may interview the minor in chambers to ascertain which parent the child would prefer living with. A.R.S. § 25-405(A).
One year after a joint legal decision-making or parenting time decree is entered, either parent may request its modification. There are two exceptions to the one-year rule:
The parent requesting custody modification must show how a substantial and continuing change in circumstances has occurred or the court will not hear the matter. A.R.S. § 25-411. Additionally, the UCCJEA allows consideration of requests for modification if occurring in the state where the child has an established residence. This is meant to prevent forum shopping and custody-motivated child removals.
Too many parents are under the mistaken impression that one parent’s failure to pay child support on time justifies the other parent withholding parenting time. Wrong! Child support and child custody are two distinct legal issues – parenting time is not dependent upon timely payment of child support. One parent cannot withhold support or suspend the other party’s parenting time without obtaining a judicial order. In fact, refusing access violates the court’s custody order. What parent wants to be held in contempt?
Request enforcement by the appropriate child support enforcement agency or seek enforcement through the court. Never take matters into your own hands.
“When I was first confronted with the possibility of divorce I became aware of the complexity of the legal proceedings. Robert Howard and Stewart Law Group came highly recommended from my colleagues in the medical community that have been through similar situations. Mr. Howard helped me navigate all of the “twists and turns” of child custody and the financial end of the divorce. Mr. Howard used his many years of experience to protect my assets and my precious parenting time with my children. If you are looking for a well run practice such as Stewart Law group and a honest, attorney with integrity to fight for your rights during a divorce you have come to the right place.”
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Stewart Law Group
777 E Thomas Rd Ste 210
Phoenix AZ 85014
Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
For more information, contact our nearest law office today! Stewart Law Group has caring, experienced child custody attorneys in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Chandler, Glendale, Mesa, Peoria, Tempe and Gilbert.
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