What are “parental rights and responsibilities?” Is it the same as custody?
The Maine courts have replaced ‘custody’ with the phrase ‘parental rights and responsibilities.’ This term refers to the legal authority to care for a child and to make major decisions about the child’s life and wellbeing (i.e., where your child lives, his/her religious upbringing, healthcare, and education).1
1 M.R.S. 19-A § 1501(1)
What types of parental rights and responsibilities arrangements are there?
There are three basic arrangements for parental rights and responsibilities: shared, sole, and allocated.
• Shared parental rights and responsibilities gives each parent an equal say in most or all of the decisions about the child’s wellbeing.1 That means parents have to make joint decisions about the major issues of the child’s life, like where the child will live and go to school. Parents who share parental rights and responsibilities have to keep each other informed about events or changes in the child’s life and consult each other (if possible) before making decisions related to raising the child. The child can live with one parent as the primary residence or it can be split between both parents. A child whose parents have this arrangement will divide his/her time between each parent’s house, but the time spent living at each parent’s house may not be equal.2
• Sole parental rights and responsibilities means that one parent has the right to make all the decisions about the child’s wellbeing, and the child’s primary residence will be with that parent.3 The parent who is not granted sole rights and responsibilities still has to help pay for the child’s expenses (child support), and could be allowed to visit the child, but s/he is not allowed to make decisions about the child’s wellbeing. The judge will award sole parental rights and responsibilities if he or she believes shared parental rights and responsibilities might be harmful to the child. For example, the judge may award sole parental rights and responsibilities if one of the parents has been abusive.
• Allocated parental rights and responsibilities means that the judge assigns each parent the right to make certain decisions about the child’s wellbeing.4 For example, one parent may be allowed to make all the decisions regarding the child’s religious upbringing, while the other parent may have the right to decide where the child goes to school. This type of arrangement is not common, but it is a possibility.
1 M.R.S. 19-A §1501(5)
2 M.R.S. 19-A § 1653(2)(D)(1)
3 M.R.S. 19-A § 1501(6)
4 M.R.S. 19-A § 1501(1)
Is there a difference between parental rights and responsibilities and visitation?
Yes. Visitation lets a parent visit with his/her child, but the parent doesn’t have the right to make major decisions about the child’s wellbeing. When the judge awards sole parental rights and responsibilities to one parent, the other parent will often get visitation rights. In cases where there has been domestic violence, the judge may allow the abusive parent visitation if safety precautions are taken. For example, the judge may order the visit to be supervised by another family member, or that the visit take place at a counselor’s office.1
1 M.R.S. 19-A § 1653(6)(B)
Should I start a court case to ask for supervised visits?
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 ME Finding a Lawyer to seek out legal advice.