What are some of the pros and cons of getting a custody order?
Some people decide not to get a custody order because they don’t want to get the courts involved. They may have an informal agreement that works well for them or may think going to court will provoke the other parent. However, getting a custody order can give you the legal right to make decisions about your child and the right to have your child live with you.
If you decide not to get a custody order, then you and the other parent likely have equal rights to making decisions and living arrangements. The exception to this is when paternity has not been legally established. To learn about establishing paternity in Mississippi, you can look at the question How is paternity established?
What are the usual steps when filing for custody?
Before filing in court for custody, you may want to consider drawing up an out-of-court agreement with the other parent. Usually parents will have to be flexible when it comes to custody and visitation for the benefit of the child. Often times, parents who fight for sole custody will litigate in court for months or even years and end up with some sort of joint custody agreement after settlement or trial. However, sometimes fighting for sole custody is necessary because you can’t agree with the other parent, the other parent is not allowing contact, or your fear for your child’s well-being. Especially with domestic violence, many abusers will try to keep power and control over the victim-survivor through the child, so joint custody isn’t recommended due to the power difference in the relationship.
If you decide to file in court for custody, although custody laws vary by state, the process usually looks similar to this:
1. File for custody. Depending on the state, you may file in the family court or a court of a different name that hears custody cases. Generally, you will file in the county where the child lives and, depending on the circumstances, you may be able to request an emergency or temporary order as part of your petition. The exact petition you file may depend on whether you are married or not:
- If you are a married parent who is also filing for divorce, you can usually include the custody petition within the divorce process.
- If you are a married parent who is not filing for divorce, you can file for custody on its own.
- If you are an unmarried parent, you can also seek custody in court. However, if paternity hasn’t been established, which means that the father hasn’t been legally recognized, then this process will likely have to happen first or as part of the custody process.
2. Prepare for the custody process
The court custody process is usually very long and can be emotionally and financially draining. If you are representing yourself in court, you can learn about the court process and how to present evidence on our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section. If you are able to hire an attorney, you can use this list of questions as your guide when deciding who to hire.
During the court process, you will try to prove why you should have your child’s custody. When preparing for court, you can gather evidence that helps make your case as to why you should have custody of the child. This process should be directed by the factors the law says a judge should consider when deciding custody. You can see How will a judge make a decision about custody? for more information. It’s important to consider that the judge will be focused on what is in the best interest of your child and many states consider that this is to have a relationship with both parents.
3. Prepare for trial
There will be one or more hearings, including a trial, if the parties cannot reach an agreement by themselves or as part of a mediation process. During trial, you or your attorney will be able to present evidence and to cross-examine the other party to help the judge make a decision.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, you can plan for your safety while in court and you should ask the judge to include some protections in the custody order. For example, you can ask for some of the following terms:
- communications between the parents can only be in writing;
- all communications can only be related to the child; and
- a neutral third party should be present at the exchange of the child or should be the one to drop off and pick up the child.
You should also try to be as specific as possible in terms of the decision-making powers of each parent, who has the child on holidays, birthdays, etc., and the time and place for pick-ups and drop-offs of the child as to avoid future conflicts.
4. Options if you lose the custody case
There could be a couple of options that are filed immediately after the judge makes the custody order:
- A motion for reconsideration asks the judge to decide differently based on the law or new evidence.
- An appeal moves the case to a higher court and asks that court to review the lower court’s decision due a judge’s error.
A petition to change (modify) the order is an option that would not be filed right away. You could ask for a modification if, later on, a substantial change of circumstances happens. A few examples could be if the other parent gets sent to jail, gets charged with child abuse or neglect, or moves to another state.
You can also watch our Custody, Visitation, and Child Support videos where we explain the process. The videos include information about the different types of custody and visitation and related legal concepts that a judge will consider, child support, and moving out of state with your child.
How will a judge make a decision about custody?
The judge will look at many factors to decide what is in the best interest of your child. Some of those factors include:
- the child’s age, health, and sex;
- which parent had continuing care of the child before the parents separated;
- which parent has the best parenting skills;
- which parent has the willingness and capacity to care for the child;
- both parents’ work responsibilities;
- the parents’ physical and mental health;
- the parents’ ages;
- emotional ties of the parent and child;
- the parents’ moral fitness;
- the child’s home, school and community record;
- the child’s wishes if the child is old enough to express a preference;
- stability of the home environment and of each parent’s employment; and
- any other relevant factors.1
1 Albright v. Albright, 437 So. 2d 1003 (Miss. 1983)
Can a parent who committed violence get custody or visitation?
If the judge finds that a parent has a history of committing family violence, there is a “rebuttable presumption” against granting custody. This means that the judge should assume that it is not in the child’s best interest for the abusive parent to have sole or joint legal and physical custody. However, the abusive parent can present evidence to try to change the judge’s mind. The judge may find that there is a history of committing family violence if:
- one incident of family violence has caused you serious bodily injury; or
- there has been a pattern of family violence against you, your family/household member, or the abusive parent’s family/household member.1
The judge also has to make a written statement explaining how the family violence affected his/her custody decision.1 In deciding whether to grant custody to a parent who committed violence, the judge will consider whether or not the parent who committed family violence:
- has shown that giving him/her sole or joint physical or legal custody of the child is in the best interest of the child due to the other parent’s absence, mental illness, substance abuse or another situation that affects the best interest of the child;
- has successfully finished a batterer’s treatment program, an alcohol or drug abuse counseling program, or a parenting class if the judge decides any of these programs are appropriate;
- is on probation or parole or has a restraining order issued against him/her and whether or not s/he has complied with its terms and conditions; and
- has committed any other acts of domestic violence.2
A judge may also allow for visitation if s/he believes you and your child can be protected through some restrictions in the order. For a list of a protections you can request in the order, see What protections can the visitation order include for domestic violence victims?
1 Miss. Code § 93-5-24(9)(a)(i)
2 Miss. Code § 93-5-24(9)(a)(iii)
Can the parental rights of the abuser be terminated?
Parental rights in Mississippi can be terminated for various reasons, some of which are related to domestic violence or sexual abuse. Parental rights could be terminated if the parent:
- is not meeting the needs of the child including food, clothing, shelter or medical care;
- is not communicating or visiting the child;
- has been abusive or neglectful and it has caused the child’s dislike towards that parent;
- is suffering from alcoholism or other drug addiction and has not been able to successfully complete an alcohol or drug treatment;
- has been abusive towards your child or another child, and having future contact with that parent is undesirable;
- has been convicted of any of the following offenses against any child:
- has been convicted of:
- murder or voluntary manslaughter of his/her child;
- aiding, abetting, attempting, or soliciting, or conspiring to commit murder or voluntary manslaughter of his/her child;
- felony assault that resulted in “serious bodily injury” to his/her child.1
1 Miss. Code § 93-15-121
What protections can the visitation order include for domestic violence victims?
If the judge believes that you and your child can be protected from further abuse with some restrictions during visitation, s/he can include those in the order. These are some of the things that could be ordered to protect you and your child:
- that the exchange of the child takes place in a protected setting;
- that visitation time is supervised and the abuser pays part of the cost associated with them;
- an order for the abuser to complete batterers’ intervention or counseling, as a condition for visitation;
- an order for the abuser to not drink alcohol or take drugs during visitation and 24 hours before visitation is scheduled;
- no overnight visitations;
- an order that the abuser pay a bond for the safe return of your child; or
- any other conditions that the judge believes are necessary to keep you, the child, or any other family or household member safe.1
1 Miss. Code § 93-5-24(9)(d)(ii)
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 watch the other parent on a certain amount of visits or order a relative to supervise the visits 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 our MS Finding a Lawyer page to seek out legal advice.
Can a grandparent file for visitation?
Grandparents can petition the court for visitation of your child in the following circumstances:
- custody is awarded to only one of the parents;
- parental rights are terminated for one of the parents;
- one of the parents died; or
- the grandparent has established a relationship with the child and both of the following are true:
- one of the parents or his/her custodian is unreasonably denying visitation; and
- the judge believes that visitation would be in the best interest of the child.1
1 Miss. Code § 93-16-3