Arizona Child Custody: Overview

If you’re a parent involved in an Arizona court case that involves figuring out custody and visitation issues, you might not know how to assert your rights or fulfill your obligations. This article can explain some important terms and help identify the pros and cons of sole or joint custody. Here are the basics of Arizona child custody law.

What Does Having Legal Custody Mean?

Following a divorce or legal separation in Arizona, parents will have to determine who has custody of shared minor children. Legal custody has to do with the right and responsibility to make decisions for your children. The phrase "joint custody" usually refers to legal custody. With joint legal custody, both parents typically make the big decisions jointly, such as what religion the child may practice or whether the child is old enough to date or drive a car. Under joint legal custody, each parent is supposed to make the day-to-day decisions in a way consistent with the jointly agreed-upon big decisions. It is possible, though not common, for one of the parents to have the responsibility for making the big decisions on a particular topic.

A parent with sole custody makes the big decisions alone, and the other parent is expected to conform to them in making day-to-day decisions when with the children. Although Arizona law does not state a preference for joint custody, it is more common than sole custody. If a parent (even with sole custody) decides unilaterally to enroll a child in private school without consent of the other parent or the court, the Arizona Child Support Guidelines provide that he or she cannot require the other parent to contribute to the cost of the private schooling. Arizona law also allows both parents to have access to records regarding the child, such as medical and school records, except in rare cases when the court finds that giving one of the parents such access would create a danger to the child.

What Does Having Physical Custody Mean?

When parents have joint legal custody and time with the child will be shared equally, the parents have joint physical custody. Joint physical custody with 50/50 time-sharing is not common, however, except where both parents want it or they have established a record of sharing time that way during their separation. If one parent has sole custody, the other parent's time with the child is usually referred to as visitation. If the parents have joint legal custody, there is usually a residential plan that describes the parents' time with the child. This is sometimes called the physical custody schedule. A general term that includes both the residential plan or physical custody schedule in a joint legal custody case and the visitation schedule in a sole custody case is access. When the parents have joint legal custody, the one with whom the child spends more time is sometimes referred to as the primary residential parent or as the parent having primary physical custody.

In Arizona, the law allows a parent who does not have custody to have frequent and continuing contact with the child, unless limitations are necessary to avoid a danger to the child's physical, mental, moral, or emotional health. If there has been domestic violence, joint custody may be prohibited by law. In deciding about the access provisions, courts generally presume that domestic violence constitutes a danger to the child.

Having sole custody does not give a parent the right to move away with the child. The law requires a parent to obtain permission from the other parent or the court before taking the child to reside in another state or more than 100 miles away within Arizona. This applies equally in sole and joint custody cases. The parent wishing to move away with the child must give the other parent at least 60 days advance notice by certified mail, and the other parent must make any objection within 30 days thereafter.

What is a Parenting Plan?

Arizona law also requires both parents to sign a parenting plan if they agree to joint legal custody. The parenting plan is reviewed by the court and made part of the decree of dissolution of marriage or custody order. Any parenting plan must include the following:

  • Provisions for how the parents will be involved in caring for the child and how the big decisions – such as education, religion, and health care – will be made (usually jointly);
  • A residential plan (schedule of physical custody);
  • A method of mediating or resolving disputes: no particular method is required, but it is common to provide that the parties will work with a mediator, counselor, or member of the clergy before taking problems back to court;
  • A provision for periodic review of the parenting plan: the specifics and methods vary widely;
  • A statement that the parties realize joint custody does not necessarily mean equal parenting time.

Additional Resources

Making child custody decisions can be complicated, and you might find that consulting with an experienced child custody lawyer in Arizona could help. You can also use FindLaw to find specific Arizona custody laws and more general child custody information.

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