Child Custody/Legal Decision Making

Arizona Child Custody Lawyer

Child Custody, Visitation and Parenting Rights in Arizona

Bishop Law Office P.C. provides quality representation in custody cases (legal decision making) where the parties were married, when the parties have a child but were never married (paternity cases), and where the parties want to change or enforce a prior court order. If you have questions about child custody, visitation or parenting rights, contact one of our offices in Tempe or Phoenix, Arizona to schedule an appointment with an experienced lawyer.

Visitation or Parenting Time FAQ

ARIZONA NEW LAWS REGARDING CUSTODY / LEGAL DECISION MAKING AND PARENTING TIME

As of 2013, Arizona has revised its statutes (laws) regarding custody (legal decision making) and parenting time.

First and foremost, the term "custody" is no longer used in the statutes. The reason that such term was deleted is that parents often thought the term custody meant who gets the children. To the contrary, the term custody meant legal decision making. Accordingly, the statutes have been changed to use the term "legal decision making" instead of legal custody. Such legal decision making responsibilities include decisions regarding the children's education (i.e. what school they attend, what classes they take, what programs they are involved in etc.), and health care decisions (i.e. what physician they see, whether they should attend counseling, elective procedures, etc.).

A new term has been added to the laws with regard to legal decision making, i.e. "personal care decisions". The statutes recognize that each parent should make minor and routine decisions for the children during his / her own parenting time - i.e. bedtimes, homework, hygiene etc.). However, the more important decisions depends upon whether parents share joint legal decision making or whether one of the parties has sole legal decision making. Such major decisions may involve a child's desire to have a tattoo or other body piercings, whether a child should be allowed to be alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and other decisions which may significantly impact a child's best interests.

One of the most important considerations for the Court in determining legal decision making is whether the parents have the ability to communicate and make important decision together. If one of the parents refuses to communicate with the other in a civil manner and absent abusive and derogatory statements, etc., or refuses to respond to important inquiries, the Court may award sole decision making to the other party. If one of the parents refuses to provide important information to the other parent, such parent may lose the right to make the important legal decisions regarding the child, and such authority may be granted to the other parent. Parents who "misbehave" may also be ordered to pay the other parent's attorney fees.

What most parents fight over is parenting time with the children (i.e. should it be equal, or should one parent have the majority of the time). The term "parenting time" has not changed, but the statutes have been further clarified to make it clear that absent evidence to the contrary, neither parent is to have priority over the other based upon the gender of the parent, the gender of the child, the age of the child, etc.

Arguably, one of the most significant changes to the statutes provides for a presumption that the parents shall share legal decision making, and that the Court shall maximize each parent's respective parenting time with the children - so long as such is consistent with the children's best interests. This would suggest that parents should be awarded equal parenting time (i.e. if each is to have maximum time) unless there is a valid reason not to have equal parenting time. Most judges agree that this has always been the case - i.e. that until they hear the evidence, such is the presumption. There are many circumstances that may warrant an unequal division of parenting time, or that one of the parties should make the legal decisions regarding the children. Such circumstances may include the fact that one of the parents has a much stronger bond with the children, one of the parents has substance abuse issues, one of the parents has engaged in domestic violence against the other parent and/or children, one of the parents engagers in unreasonable behaviors regarding the other parent or children, and various other reasons.

If you would like more information regarding how the new legal decision making and parenting time laws may affect you, please call our office and schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys at Bishop Law Office P.C..

What custody options do I have?

Contrary to popular belief, there are many different options that you have regarding custody (legal decision making) and parenting time. Such options all focus upon what is in your children’s “best interests.”

If the parents can agree upon what is in the best interests of their children between themselves, the Court will generally adopt such agreement. We suggest that you consult with an attorney with regard to the “Parenting Plan Agreement” to make sure that you have covered all necessary terms.

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What Are The Types Of Custody (legal decision making)?

The term custody generally refers to "legal decision making" and not parenting time.  The statute has been changed to eliminate the term custody and to use the term "legal decision making" instead. 

  •  Sole Decision Making: This is generally where one of the parents makes all of the important decisions regarding the children (i.e. decisions regarding education, medical, personal care).
  • Joint Legal Decision Making: This is where the parties make all important legal decisions together regarding education, health care and personal care. This can apply were the parties have equal parenting time. Or, this may apply where one of the parents may have more time with the children, but the other parent has rights with regard to decision-making. The parent with more time with the children is sometimes called the "primary residential parent". The Parenting Plan may provide that one of the parties make the important decisions after consulting with the other parent. The Parenting Plan may provide instead that the parties make such decisions together. There are numerous options available.

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What is a “Parenting Conference”?

The Court may order (but is not required to order) a Parenting Conference. The Superior Court provides certain programs to assist the Court in determining what is in the children’s best interests.

The first step in a Parenting Conference is generally for a mental health provider to meet with the parents and attempt to negotiate agreements. If negotiations are unsuccessful, the mental health provider will interview the parents and may then interview the children. The mental health provider may contact other persons that have a significant role in the children’s lives (i.e. teachers, etc.). The mental health provider may then provide recommendations regarding legal decision making, parenting time and other matters to the Court. Unlike mediation, the matters addressed during Parenting Conferences are not confidential and may be addressed to the court. There is a small charge to the parties for this service. A parenting conference may not necessarily result in a custody or parenting time recommendation and may thus have limited use.

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What is a Limited Focus or Family Assessment?

Private mental health specialists have recently created a less expensive and more expedient procedure for providing a tailor made assessment specifically applicable to the parenting issues involved in specific cases. Rather than conducting a full custody evaluation, which often leads to a 50 to 100 page report, a Limited Family Assessment may be a great alternative. The parties to a Limited Family Assessment agree in advance regarding the specific issues and categories that need to be addressed during the assessment. The mental health provider will thus limit the assessment to those matters that are directly relevant to the custody and parenting time issues as addressed in advance by the parties. The cost for such assessment generally ranges from $1,500.00 to $4,000.00 depending upon the extent and complexity of the issues. Sometimes the costs are divided equally or in some proportion. Other times, one of the parties is ordered to pay the entire amount.

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What is a Custody or Comprehensive Family Evaluation?

The Court may order, but is not required to order, a custody evaluation (sometimes called a comprehensive family evaluation). This is where the Court assigns a private psychologist or mental health expert to determine and to provide recommendations to the Court regarding decision making, parenting time and other parenting issues.

These types of private custody evaluations are generally more involved than Parenting Conferences and Limited Family Assessments. They often take longer than the other options. However, the mental health provider may do more as well. For example, the mental health provider (if a licensed psychologist) may provide for psychological testing of the parents. They may obtain documents from the parties and other sources (for example, prior counseling records, criminal records, etc.). They may interview the parties more often, and may interview the children more often. They may contact people involved in the children's lives. They may also determine whether one of the parties is attempting to alienate the children against the other party.

Sometimes a Parenting Conference or a Limited Family Assessment is sufficient. Sometimes a comprehensive evaluation may be more helpful. Such evaluations cost generally between $4,000.00 and $7,000.00. Sometimes the costs are divided equally or in some proportion. Other times, one of the parties is ordered to pay the entire amount.

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Can I change legal custody and parenting time later?

A parent can request that legal decision making  or parenting time be modified. Sometimes a parent wishes a complete change in legal decision making. Sometimes a parent just wants more parenting time with the children. You generally must wait one year after the last court order to change custody unless the children are or may be endangered physically or mentally, or unless the other parent has violated the custody order. This one-year requirement may not apply to minor changes in "parenting time".

Sometimes a change in parenting time or decision making is warranted because the children want to live primarily with the other parent. Sometimes such change is warranted because of the children’s ages and changed needs. Sometimes parenting time needs to be changed because one of the parents has moved away. If the parties agree to such change, the Court will generally adopt any agreements. Again, the parents should consult with an attorney to make sure all necessary terms are covered.

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Relocation Cases - Can I Move With The Children, Or Can the Other Parent Move With The Children?

Whether a parent can relocate with the children out of state or even to the other side of town depends upon whether such event is covered in the Court’s order and/or what is in the best interests of the children. You should always consult with an attorney before moving with the children. You should always consult with an attorney if you think that the other parent is planning to move with the children and if such move may affect your rights or your parenting time. Click here to read more.

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How Old Does A Child Have To Be Before He Or She Can Decide Who He Or She Lives With?

In Arizona, a child’s wishes can always be considered. Judges generally do not interview children although they have the discretion to do so. Judges generally prefer that a mental health expert provide information regarding the children’s wishes and circumstances. Judges will sometimes allow the parents to tell the judge what the children want, however, the judge may not allow such testimony if the other parent objects.

These are only a few of the major questions that our clients often ask. Bishop Law Office P.C. is more than happy to answer any questions you may have during your consultation with us.

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What is Parenting Time?

This is the same thing as “visitation”. The Court now generally uses the term “parenting time” instead of the term “visitation” or “access”. Such terms are generally interchangeable. Sometimes the parents are ordered to share parenting time equal. Sometimes one of the parents is awarded the majority of the parenting time. In extreme cases a parent may only be allowed supervised parenting time.

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What Are Guidelines for Visitation or Parenting Time?

Maricopa County publishes certain “guidelines” regarding parenting time. However, every case is different. These guidelines are not set in stone, nor do they state which parent (i.e. mother or father) is considered the primary parent. Rather, the Court looks at what is in the children’s best interests. Sometimes it is best that one of the parents is the primary residential parent. Sometimes it is best if the parties have equal time.

Arizona Statutes provide that the courts cannot base its custody decisions upon a parent's gender, i.e. there is no presumption in favor of mothers or fathers.  Read more about Arizona's Parenting Time Guidelines.

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What Does The Court Look At In Determining Who Should Make the Legal Parenting Decisions And How Much Parenting Time Should The Other Party Receive?

Arizona has statutes (rules) that set forth specific factors that the Court should address in deciding the best interests of the children. There are other factors, which may not be written in the statutes, but may be important. These factors include but are not limited to the following.

  • The past, present and future relationships between each of the parents and the children.
  • What the children want and why (if of suitable age and maturity).
  • How the children get along with each of the parents and others.
  • How the children are doing in each household, and how they do in school and the community.
  • Whether the parents use appropriate discipline and reinforcement.
  • The mental health of each of the parents.
  • The mental health of the children.
  • The physical health of each of the parents.
  • The physical health of the children.
  • Whether the parents have any problems which effect the children’s best interests - For example - drug use, alcohol abuse, physical abuse of the children or the other parent, and criminal history in some cases.
  • Which parent is more likely to work well with the other parent regarding parenting time and other issues.
  • If psychologists or other mental health providers have been involved, the Court will consider recommendations from such experts.
  • Whether one of the parties is attempting to alienate the children or is engaging in other inappropriate behavior.
  • Whether there are events or factors which may endanger the children.

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What Is A Parenting Coordinator (PC)?

A Parenting Coordinator (PC) is a mental health expert, attorney, or other expert appointed by the Court after final parenting orders are entered. A PC can meet with the parties and attempt to resolve parenting issues as they arise. Examples of such issues are numerous; i.e. where the children go to school, the effect of new significant others on the children, continued communication problems between the parents, vacation and travel disputes, enforcement of parenting time issues, inappropriate parenting complaints, and essentially any other issues that directly or indirectly involve the children. Generally, a PC attempts to guide and assist the parents in reaching an agreement on how issues are to be addressed.

The PC is much more than a mediator however. The PC has the authority to make recommendations to the Court regarding the various parenting issues. A PC can be an invaluable resource to assist parties who are unable to communicate or resolve ongoing issues.

A PC generally does not have the authority to recommend significant changes in custody or parenting time. If a party desires an expert's input regarding significant legal decision making or parenting time changes, a comprehensive family evaluation, limited focus assessment or Parenting Conference is generally required.

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At Bishop Law Office P.C., we represent people dealing with legal decision making and parenting time. To schedule an appointment with an experienced attorney, contact us at one of our offices in Tempe or Phoenix, Arizona.