A couple decades ago, when a couple divorced, the children often went to live with the mother while the father had them every other weekend and for a week during the summer. In recent years, however, family law judges have caught onto the notion that children do best when they have regular contact with both parents through joint physical custody whenever possible. If you are a dad who is in the midst of a divorce, it’s important that you understand what your rights are as well as what you need to do to claim those rights. Remember, your children deserve to have a close relationship with you as well as with their mother, so don’t assume that you don’t have the right to have joint custody in most cases.
You Have the Right to Participate in Court and Get a Fair Trial
As a father, you’ll get advance notice about each hearing that comes up. You have the right to (and should, if at all possible) attend these hearings and to participate. If your child’s mother brings up any motions against you, you’ll have the chance to respond. Also, if she alleges that you were abusive or neglectful, you’ll be able to admit or deny those allegations.
In some states, you will get an attorney to represent you for free, particularly if your child’s mother wants to remove your parental rights. In other states, you’ll be responsible for your own representation. If you can’t pay for a high-priced private attorney, a legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you learn how to represent yourself.
You Have the Right to Be a Custodial Parent
In most cases, fathers have the right to joint physical custody. This does not necessarily mean that you will have your child living with you in your home half of the time, however. It means that you will have your child with you some of the time; it might be more than half, it might be half, or it might be less than half of the time. The details depend on how far you live from the child’s mother, who has been the primary caretaker up until now, who has more time to spend with the child, and other factors.
If you need to move out of state or far away within your state, you might not have this type of custody. In that case, most of the time you will have the right to visitation with your child. This means that you will have a schedule when you can have visits, including overnight visits, depending on the age of the child.
If there are issues such as child abuse or criminal charges, you might need to have supervised visitation. This means that you’ll visit with your child for a set period of time and at set time intervals in a neutral location with a supervisor. Often, this will take place in the office of a social worker; other times, it will take place at your home and you will have someone else supervising your interactions with your child.
You Have the Right to Make Decisions
Most of the time, fathers are also entitled to joint legal custody. This means that you can make decisions for your child, such as whether they need to see a doctor, when they are with you. You’ll also have access to their medical, dental, and school records. When both parents have joint legal custody, they usually will work together to determine where the child will go to daycare or school and whether the child will take part in certain religious ceremonies. This is something that the judge will either decide on or will let the two of you work out. Often, one parent (usually the one with primary residence) will have the tie-breaking vote if the two of you cannot agree.
Tips on Securing Your Rights
While all of these rights are yours, you do need to take certain actions so you don’t miss out on them. For example, if you receive advance notice of hearings and don’t show up, then you will not have any say on what happens at the hearing. If you do not return forms on time or at all, you also might miss out on some of your rights. It’s important to carefully read any paperwork you receive from the court or from your lawyer or legal resource group so you understand what you need to do, when you need to do it, and where you need to go.
Here are some more tips on securing your rights:
- Keep up with your visitation. If you are not showing up for visitation or not taking your child on your weekends or weeks, the child’s mother might assume that you don’t want to have a relationship with your child. Worse, the court might assume the same thing.
- Keep up with your child support payments. Although you won’t lose visitation if you miss child support payments, you could be held in contempt of court. If you cannot afford your mandated child support payments, you can appeal or file a motion for a change in support. Please be aware that normally, child support won’t be changed unless there is a change in your circumstances (such as a job loss or an illness).
- Keep in touch with your legal representation. If you have questions or you do cannot attend a hearing or other meeting, let your legal representative know right away. They cannot help you if they don’t know what’s going on. Make sure that if your address, email, or phone number changes, you let the office know. Your legal representative should be able to get hold of you quickly if necessary.
Divorce can be scary and stressful, particularly if you aren’t sure whether you’ll be allowed to continue a relationship with your child. The good news is that in most cases, fathers’ rights are taken very seriously and you should, barring extenuating circumstances, be able to maintain a fair schedule of custody and visitation with your child. Talk to the legal advocates at National Family Solutions if you have questions or concerns.