What is custody (known as parental rights and responsibilities - "PR&R")?
Vermont family courts call custody “parental rights and responsibilities” (PR&R). This term means the same thing as custody, just with a different name. Some judges may still use the term “custody.”
“Custody” and “parental rights and responsibilities” both refer to the care and control of a child under 18. An order addressing parental rights and responsibilities will address:
- Who gets to make important decisions about the child’s life and how your child is raised; and
- Who will physically take care of the child.
Parents can make an agreement about PR&R and ask the court to turn that agreement into a court order. If the parents cannot agree, a judge can make a decision about PR&R as a part of a contested hearing.
What are the options for physical responsibility (physical custody)?
Physical responsibility or physical custody refers to the right to have your child live with you and stay overnight with you. The parent with physical responsibility takes care of the child’s day-to-day needs.1
When the child lives with one parent, that parent has sole physical responsibility or sole custody. A parent with sole physical responsibility has the child live with him or her for most of the time. Legally, a parent with sole custody is responsible for the child’s care for between 75% and 100% of the child’s time.2
When parents share the responsibility for taking care of a child and having the child live with them, this is called shared physical responsibility. Here are some examples of shared physical responsibility:
- your child spends one week with you and then one week with the other parent
- your child spends weekdays with you and weekends with the other parent.
A judge can also order split physical responsibility or split custody when there’s more than one child involved. When parents have split physical responsibility, some of the children live with the mother while the rest live with the father.
1 VT ST T. 15 § 664
2 VT ST T. 15 § 657(a)(d)
What are the options for legal responsibility (legal custody)?
Legal responsibility means who has the right to make important decisions about your child and decide how your child is raised. Some examples of these types of decisions are:
- what kind of education your child receives;
- how your child receives medical and dental care;
- what type of religious training your child will receive; and
- if your child can travel outside of Vermont.1
Judges usually give this decision-making ability to one parent. That is called having sole legal responsibility or sole legal custody. When parents share the right to make important decisions about the child’s life (usually due to an agreement between the parents) this is called shared legal responsibility. If there’s more than one child, a judge can also order split legal responsibility, where the mother has the decision-making ability for some of the children but the father has the decision-making ability for the other children.
1 15 V.S.A. § 664(1)(A)
What is parent-child contact (visitation)?
“Parent-child contact” refers to visitation of the child – it is the right to spend time with your child that doesn’t live with you. If one parent has sole physical responsibility for a child, the other parent will usually have some form of parent-child contact.
If you and the other parent cannot agree about PR&R and/or parent-child contact, you will have a court hearing where a judge will decide who gets physical custody and how much parent-child contact the non-custodial parent will get.
Judges usually want children to contact with both of their parents, unless it would harm the children. If the child’s other parent has harmed your child in some way, the judge may limit parent-child contact or say there won’t be any contact at all. Judges usually order at least some parent-child contact. If you want a judge to order no parent-child contact for the other parent, you usually have to show the judge that the other parent is a serious and immediate threat to your child. A lawyer may be able to help you with this. To find a lawyer please visit the VT Finding a Lawyer page.
What are some advantages and disadvantages of getting a court order addressing PR&R?
Getting a court order can give you (or the other parent):
- 1. the legal right to make decisions about your child,
- the right to have your child live with you, and/or
- the right to visitation, or parent-child contact.
If there is no court order and you and the other parent were married, then you and the other parent have equal rights to have the child live with you and to make decisions about the child’s life. The only way to change the equal right to make decisions about your child and the equal right to have your child live with either parent is by filing for a court order addressing parental rights and responsibilities.
If you and the child’s father were not married, then only the mother has legal and physical responsibility for the child until parentage is established in court and there is a court order saying otherwise.*
Some people decide not to get an order because they don’t want to get the courts involved. They may think going to court will provoke the other parent or will allow the other parent to receive more time with their child. They may also have an informal agreement that works well for them. However, you should also know that the police and the courts cannot enforce an informal agreement about custody. They can only enforce a court order. If you and the other parent agree about how to divide PR&R, you can ask a court to turn that agreement into a court order so that is is legally enforceable.
*See 15 V.S.A. § 308; and Vermont Judiciary website
Should I start a court case to ask for supervised visitation?
If you are not comfortable with the abuser being alone with your child, you might be thinking about asking the judge to order that visits with your child be supervised. If you are already in court because the abuser filed for visitation or custody, you may not have much to lose by asking that the visits be supervised if you can present a valid reason for your request (although this may depend on your situation).
However, if there is no current court case, please get legal advice BEFORE you start a court case to ask for supervised visits. We strongly recommend that you talk to an attorney who specializes in custody matters to find out what you would have to prove to get the visits supervised and how long supervised visits would last, based on the facts of your case.
In the majority of cases, supervised visits are only a temporary measure. Although the exact visitation order will vary by state, county, or judge, the judge might order a professional to observe the other parent on a certain amount of visits or the visits might be supervised by a relative for a certain amount of time – and if there are no obvious problems, the visits may likely become unsupervised. Oftentimes, at the end of a case, the other parent ends up with more frequent and/or longer visits than s/he had before you went into court or even some form of custody.
In some cases, to protect your child from immediate danger by the abuser, starting a case to ask for custody and supervised visits is appropriate. To find out what may be best in your situation, please go to VT Finding a Lawyer to seek out legal advice.