Child Custody Laws, Resources, and FAQs

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For most parents going through a divorce, custody issues are the primary concern. However, it's important to realize that the courts have one goal: to ensure that the post-divorce custody agreement is in the best interests of the child. Whenever possible, the courts want to see both parents continue to be involved in a child's life after a divorce.

Custody Laws

Each state has different child custody laws. Some states presume that parents have joint custody, while others do not. Some states may also assume that in the case of unmarried parents, the mother automatically has custody, while others expect single mothers to file for custody, even if the father is not involved.


State courts consider different factors, including, but not limited to, the willingness to co-parent, the necessity to appoint a guardian or attorney for a child, as well as a list of statutory factors to determine child custody cases.

Mouse over the map below, and you can see a list of factors that each state considers when determining child custody.

Answers to Top Questions

Divorce can be one of the hardest events in anyone's lives, and often there are more questions than answers. The following are some of the most common questions and answers to events surrounding divorce and child custody.

I Feel That When My Spouse Cheated on Me, They Abandoned Our Marriage. Will the Courts See It This Way, Too? 

The courts are much more concerned about their relationship with the children than about your marital relationship. If they were involved in their lives before the divorce, then it's reasonable to expect that the courts will support their involvement after the divorce as well—through shared custody or liberal visitation rights.

My Ex Is in a Same-Sex Relationship That I Don't Want Our Children to Be Around. Will the Courts Also See This as Harmful?

First, remember that the courts may not share your opinions about the impact of same-sex relationships on children. Second, from the court's perspective, denying your children an ongoing relationship with either parent could be far more harmful than anything they may be exposed to through contact with your ex-spouse.

Can't My Ex Just Relinquish Their Child Custody Rights?

Generally speaking, no. Even if they never exercise their child custody rights, the courts would rather have the option of later holding them accountable for paying child support if you or your child require financial assistance.

We Have a Temporary Child Custody Agreement, and My Ex Wants More Visitation Time. However, I Am Reluctant to Introduce Schedule Changes. What Should I Do?

Discuss the situation with your ex and establish some ground rules for changing the schedule. For example, requests for changes need to be presented with at least a 24-hour notice, and they need to go through you first before they are suggested to the kids.

Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents

Regardless of if unmarried mothers are required to file for child custody, unmarried fathers can still file for custody and visitation rights, even if they're not listed on the birth certificate. Here are some common questions about custody rights for unmarried parents:

I Didn't Put My Ex's Name on the Birth Certificate, but They Now Want to File for Custody. Can They Do This? 

Yes. Even if a birth father is not listed on the birth certificate, he can still file for child custody or visitation.

I Will Have Primary Custody; However, My Ex Wants Regular Visitations. Do the Courts Typically Grant Overnight Visitation for Newborns?

Most courts will not grant overnights until a child is at least 3 years old. In the meantime, shorter, more frequent visits are encouraged so that a solid bond can be established early on.

My Child's Coparent Keeps Skipping Visitations. Will Taking Them to Court Help?

While the courts do grant visitation rights, they aren't in the business of forcing parents to exercise those rights. Consider talking with your ex about why they are reluctant to exercise their rights and how you can help them gain confidence in their parenting skills.

After Four Years of Being Uninvolved, My Ex and Their New Spouse Want to File for Custody. Is This an Attempt to Avoid Paying Support, and Should I Worry?

Given their lack of participation in your child's life up until this point, they would have to prove that you are an unfit parent to win child custody. Even though that's unlikely, you should speak with a lawyer about your case and begin to prepare yourself for the possibility that they will at least be given visitation with your child.

Resources for Parents Involved in Custody Disputes

Even if you decide to represent yourself in court, you should discuss the child custody laws in your state with a qualified attorney. Fortunately, free legal help is available for those who qualify. Try the following:

  • Contact Legal Aid in your state.
  • Contact local law schools to inquire about free legal clinics.
  • If you are a victim of domestic violence, contact a local shelter to inquire about legal assistance.
  • Schedule a free consultation with a qualified child custody attorney in your state.

Tips for Difficult Child Custody Battles

To begin, find a lawyer that you trust. Winning a child custody case is about a lot more than understanding child custody laws. It's also imperative that you feel comfortable with your lawyer and feel that they are fairly representing you. 

Participate actively in your case by doing as much research as you can, taking the action steps recommended by your lawyer, and thoroughly preparing for your child custody hearing. At the same time, don't do anything to aggravate the case against you. Be mindful that your ex's lawyer may be looking for information to use against you, so be sure to conduct yourself responsibly and avoid ugly confrontations with them.

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  1. The Legal Aid Society. "Home."

  2. Domestic Violence Hotline. "Home."

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