How Florida Courts Decide Child Custody

Deciding how to handle child custody and parenting time after divorce or separation is one of the hardest issues any parent will ever handle. Putting the needs of the child first is certainly the intent of most parents, but any negative feelings the parents feels toward each other may make executing that intent very difficult. Because it is so important for the parents to work together for the sake of their child and the unique understanding they share about the child’s needs, Florida courts want parents to form their own agreements about these issues, but it will step in when necessary to form a custody and visitation plan when the parents cannot. Usually, parents are able to put aside their differences once these issues are settled and adapt to co-parenting in a productive way. A recent news story in the Tallahassee Democrat reports on an extreme and unfortunate response by a family to an ongoing and divisive custody battle between a divorced couple. A University of Florida law professor was murdered in 2014, and the men suspected of killing him were finally identified and caught last month. Investigators believe the ex-wife’s family paid men to kill him to prevent losing visitation rights with the couple’s two sons. Obviously, this situation is an outlier and far from normal, but it serves as a reminder of how much is at stake when child custody is disputed.

Types of Custody

Florida favors awarding shared custody to both parents, and will only deviate from this standard if there is evidence that shared custody would be detrimental to the child. Child custody is comprised of physical and legal rights to a child. Physical custody relates to which parent will be responsible for providing childcare, and legal custody refers to the right of a parent to make decisions on behalf of the child, such as what school they will attend, which doctor they will see, and which activities they can pursue. These rights and responsibilities are laid out in the parenting plan, which must describe how the parents will divide daily childrearing tasks, when a parent will have the authority to make decisions about the child, and a schedule addressing when the child will live with each parent. The court must approve a parenting plan before it is enforceable, and it will only be modified if a party can show a “substantial, material, and unanticipated change of circumstances.”

When Parents Disagree

If the parents cannot come to an agreement about the terms of a parenting plan, the court has several resources it may use to help the judge ascertain the proper arrangement for the child. First, the court may order a social investigation and study to assess the functioning of the family, and use the recommendations provided in the follow up report to formulate a parenting plan. The study can be conducted by court staff, a psychologist or other mental health professional, or a child placement agency. In addition, the court also has the option of ordering the parties to mediation to work out their differences, and if they are able to reach a consensus, the terms of the agreement become enforceable as part of a consent order.

Get Legal Advice

If you are having difficulty with an ex-spouse regarding a parenting plan, contact an attorney to discuss the possibility of modifying the existing plans or enforcing the present terms. The Tampa law firm of Bubley & Bubley, P.A. works with families on wide variety of custody and family law matters. Contact us to schedule a consultation.

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