Divorce & Child Custody in Florida: How Does It Work?

People often ask family law attorneys, “How does custody work in a divorce?” This piece answers that question, covering child custody options in a divorce. We start with core relevant aspects of Florida divorce and child custody laws: parental responsibility, time-sharing, and the parenting plan. Then we provide the basic seven-step process of custody determinations (which, per Florida’s divorce and child custody laws, are wrapped into the dissolution of marriage – i.e., divorce – cases).

Divorce & Child Custody: Terminology

Here are three key terms/concepts to know:

1. Parental responsibility (legal custody)

In a divorce, child custody, referred to as timesharing, includes your right as a parent to make legal, religious, educational, or medical decisions for your child. In Florida, this capacity is called parental responsibility. In family law cases involving children, the court must award either sole parental responsibility to one parent or shared parental responsibility. Florida courts rarely award sole parental responsibility.

2. Time-sharing (physical custody)

The time you are able to spend parenting your child is called time-sharing in Florida family law terminology. A timesharing schedule can be established by the court, or the parties can make their own timesharing schedule and the court will approve the plan, so long as it is in the best interests of the child(ren). All timesharing schedules approved by the court must be in the best interests of the child.

Timesharing is typically set forth so that both parents have equal timesharing, one parent has majority timesharing, or, in certain cases, one parent will have supervised timesharing. Equal timesharing means both parents have an equal amount of overnight timesharing with the minor child. When a parent has the majority of timesharing, it means they have more than half of the overnight timesharing in a year. If there are credible instances of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or domestic violence, supervised time-sharing can be established.

3. Parenting plan

Parental responsibilities and time-sharing must be outlined within a parenting plan. The court may approve a single parenting plan submitted jointly, in the case of a settlement agreement, a parenting plan proposed by one of the parties, or, if neither party proposes a parenting plan that is in the child’s best interests, the court may establish one itself.

The following four items must be included:

  1. the parent who is proposed to be responsible for education and health issues, or a designation of shared or sole parental responsibility;
  2. the timesharing schedule;
  3. a plan for child-related communications between the parents; and
  4. a plan for day-to-day parental responsibility.

How Does Child Custody Work In A Divorce? The 7-step Custody Process

The process through which timesharing and parental responsibility for a child are granted to a parent or parents is as follows:

1. Research and preparation

Plan ahead and think about your children’s best interests as you consider a potential time-sharing schedule and parenting plan. Know what kind of schedule you want, or at least can work with, and whether you want to hire an attorney to help with your case or proceed pro-se (self-represented).

Custody X Change, an app designed to help parents design a parenting plan, stresses the importance of working with a lawyer for strategy and representation. You have a better chance of seeing a favorable outcome with an attorney at your side, and it can reduce the stress associated with the litigation process.

If you do not think you can afford an attorney, you can look into legal aid services, which offer or low-cost legal advice and representation. It is also critical to review the General Information for Self-Represented Litigants, provided by the Florida courts, even if you plan to hire an attorney. This guide will give you a general outline of what to expect and provides a glossary of legal terms that you will hear during your case.

2. Petition filing

The next step is to start a law case. Usually, a judge will hear and guide the case, although general magistrates sometimes preside over the cases where both parties are self-represented. A general magistrate will provide recommendations in your case to be approved or rejected by a judge.

If you are going through a divorce, issues related to minor children – parental responsibility and timesharing, as well as child support – are included in the divorce case and must be settled before your divorce case can be completed.

While this post handles the question, “How does child custody work in a divorce?” your situation may be different. You can open a child custody case even if you remain married, in which case you will have to petition for the orders separately. For those who are unmarried, even if paternity is not itself an issue, child support, time-sharing, and parental responsibility are determined through a paternity case.

3. Parenting class

The State of Florida seeks to mitigate the negative impact that divorce can have on families through education. Therefore, it is mandatory that you take a Parent Education and Family Stabilization Course if you file for a divorce with minor children in Florida. The course is four hours long. Before a final judgment is issued by the court, you must complete this class.

4. Discovery

Each parent has 45 days after the opening of the case to make their mandatory disclosures, which is a list of financial information you must provide. You each must complete a financial affidavit, using the appropriate form if your income is over $50,000 or up to $50,000.

In some cases, you may need or want to know more information than mandatory disclosures provide. That may lead to extended discovery, such as requests for evidence, subpoenas, and depositions (interviews under oath).

5. Mediation

For any contested dissolution cases or cases involving minor children, Florida courts require the parties to attend mediation. A mediator certified by the Florida Supreme Court will lead this process. The mediator should be completely impartial, focused on the mutual benefit of the parties, and noncoercive in getting agreement from both parents. Many parties are able to reach partial or full agreements during mediation.

6. Pretrial conference

It is typical for the parents and their attorneys to participate in a conference before the trial. The judge may suggest settlement at this pretrial conference; they will also establish rules related to the trial. You may find out your trial date at the conference, or the conference may occur two weeks prior to your trial, depending on your county.

7. Trial

A trial will occur if anything remains disputed. During the trial, your lawyer is able to question witnesses and present evidence to better establish your position. A final order is announced at the end of the trial by the general magistrate or judge. The terms in this final judgment, which must include a parenting plan and child support provisions if there are minor children involved, must be followed until all minor children are grown (unless modifications are made through the court at a later point).

Hearings & Conferences

In addition to what is described above, you may also have hearings. These will occur if you have a matter or issue that needs to be settled sooner rather than later. Generally, hearings are scheduled if a party files a motion asking for a temporary order from the court. The time-sharing schedule during the case, safeguarding from domestic violence, and other issues can be resolved through a temporary order.

Case management conferences will also occur. These conferences are not for orders or motions but for case administration. Basically, the case management conference allows the judge or general magistrate assigned to your case to get an update on the status of your case and deal with any issues that arise, such as disputes over discovery, bad behavior by the parties, or other disagreements.

How Courts Decide Child Custody

In the intricate process of determining child custody, courts are guided by one paramount principle: the best interest of the child. This section delves into the factors and considerations that courts evaluate to make informed decisions on child custody matters. Our aim is to provide clarity and insight into this critical aspect of family law, helping you understand the judicial approach to fostering the welfare and stability of children involved in custody disputes.

The Best Interest of the Child Standard

At the core of every custody decision is the child’s best interest, a standard that encompasses various factors aimed at ensuring the child’s overall well-being and happiness. This standard allows courts to tailor decisions to the unique needs and circumstances of each child.

Factors Considered by the Court

  1. Parental Capacity: Courts assess each parent’s ability to provide for the child’s physical, emotional, educational, and special needs. This includes considerations of parental guidance, stability, and the ability to offer a loving and nurturing environment.
  2. Child’s Health and Safety: The child’s safety is paramount. Any history of domestic violence, abuse, or neglect by either parent is a critical factor in custody determinations.
  3. Child’s Emotional Ties: The strength and nature of the child’s relationship with each parent and other significant family members are considered. Courts often aim to preserve strong, healthy relationships that contribute to the child’s emotional development.
  4. Parental Cooperation and Conflict: The court evaluates each parent’s willingness to support the child’s relationship with the other parent, considering the ability of parents to communicate and cooperate in matters concerning the child.
  5. Child’s Home, School, and Community Connection: Maintaining continuity in the child’s life is important. Courts consider the impact of custody arrangements on the child’s current routines, including the home environment, schooling, and community activities.
  6. Parental Involvement: The extent of each parent’s participation in the child’s life prior to the custody dispute, including involvement in education, health care, and extracurricular activities, is evaluated.
  7. Child’s Preference: Depending on the age and maturity of the child, courts may consider the child’s preferences regarding custody. However, this is just one of many factors considered and does not solely determine the outcome.
  8. Ability to Maintain a Stable Environment: The court looks at each parent’s ability to provide a stable, secure, and consistent environment for the child, including considerations of financial stability.
  9. Mental and Physical Health of Parents: The mental and physical health of each parent can impact their ability to care for the child, although disabilities alone are not determinative of custody outcomes.
  10. Relocation and Geographic Considerations: Potential impacts of moving the child from their current community and school are assessed, especially in cases where one parent wishes to relocate with the child.

Understanding how courts decide custody can demystify the legal process and empower parents to advocate effectively for their children’s well-being. Remember, the primary aim of custody decisions is to support the health, happiness, and development of children within the framework of their family circumstances.

Getting Help with Child Custody & Divorce

Divorce and custody cases can be incredibly stressful. Beyond helping you understand how the process works, a caring and highly effective attorney can explain child custody options in divorce and get you the best possible outcome. At Golden Key Law, we pride ourselves on having the experience and passion you need in legal representation. Contact us today to schedule your consultation with a Pinellas Park child custody lawyer.