What is custody?
Custody is the legal responsibility for the care and supervision of a minor child, including the power to make major decisions about the child. Unlike other states where a “minor child” is a child who is less than 18 years old, in Alabama a “minor child” is a child who is less than 19 years old.1
1 See Alabama Code § 26-1-1(a)
2 See Alabama Code § 30-3-151
What is physical custody?
The term “physical custody” refers to the parent who actually has primary physical responsibility and control of the child. Normally the parent who has physical custody is the parent with whom the child lives most of the time. When one parent has sole physical custody, the other parent usually gets visitation with the child. Also, the parent who has sole physical custody could receive child support from the other parent.
Joint physical custody refers to when physical custody is shared by the parents in such a way that the child has frequent and substantial contact with each parent, although not necessarily equal time with each parent. Parents may have joint physical custody while one parent has sole legal custody.
1 Alabama Code § 30-3-151
What is legal custody?
The term “legal custody” refers to which parent has the primary responsibility and authority to make major decisions about the child’s life including, but not limited to, eduction, health care and religion. There are two types of legal custody:
- Sole legal custody refers to when one parent has these rights.
- Joint legal custody is when both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for these major decisions concerning the child.1
Joint legal custody involves the parents communicating with each other and compromising on decisions about the child. Therefore, this is usually not a good solution for victims of domestic violence since the abuser has power and control over the victim and it might not be safe for the victim to disagree with the abuser. If the victim cannot have equal input and power in the relationship, the decisions about the child that are supposed to be made jointly are often made by the abuser alone. Similarly, shared or joint physical custody could also be dangerous where there is domestic violence.
1 Alabama Code § 30-3-151
What is visitation?
Visitation is the right to spend time with your child. Judges will usually grant some form of visitation rights to parents who do not have physical custody of their children except where a judge finds that it would be unsafe or otherwise harmful to the child (or the custodial parent).1 For more information, see Can a parent who committed violence get visitation?
1 See Alabama Code § 30-3-132
What are some pros and cons of getting a custody order?
There are many reasons people choose not to file for custody. Some people decide not to get a custody order because they don’t want to get the courts involved. Some parents make an informal agreement that works well for them. Some parents think going to court will provoke the other parent, or they are worried that if a custody case is started, the other parent will suddenly fight for (and get) more custody or visitation rights than they are comfortable with.
If the other parent is presently uninvolved with the child, he or she may become involved just because a case was started. Also, if the other parent fights for custody, the case may drag on for a long period of time, which can be emotionally and financially draining. The court will look into many aspects of your personal life that you may prefer keeping private such as past mental health issues, your criminal record, substance abuse issues, and details of your personal relationships.
However, getting a custody order from a court can give you certain legal rights. Getting a custody order can give you:
- the right to make decisions about your child; and/or
- the right to residency (to have your child live with you).
Without a custody order, it is possible that both parents may share these legal rights, even if one parent takes care of the child every day. However, if you file for custody, the other parent may also request these rights and it will be up to the judge to decide.
We strongly recommend talking to a lawyer who can help you think through if filing for custody would be best for you, depending on the facts of your situation. You can find legal help by clicking on the AL Finding a Lawyer page.
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 AL Finding a Lawyer to seek out legal advice.