WomensLaw.org strongly recommends that you get in touch with a lawyer in your community for more information on custody. Go to the WY Places that Help page for a listing of organizations that can help. In our general Custody page, we have information about custody that is not specific to any state. The page includes a section about how to try to transfer your custody case to a new state where you are living so that you can modify the custody order from your new state.
Basic information and definitions
What is custody? What types of custody are there?
Custody is the legal responsibility for the care and control of your child (under 18). Legal custody is the right to make major decisions about your child, including decisions regarding education, medical care, and religion. Physical custody refers to the physical care and supervision of your child.1
A custody order can include any combination of joint, shared or sole custody depending on what the judge believes is in the child’s best interests.2 As part of a custody order, the judge can order visitation as well. When crafting a visitation order, the judge is supposed to include enough detail to make sure that both parents understand the order and can follow it. The order should also clarify which parent will have to pay the costs of transporting the child to and from the visits.3
1 W.S. § 20-5-202(a)(xiv)
2 W.S. § 20-5-201(d)
3 W.S. § 20-2-202(a)(i)(ii)
What are some pros and cons of filing for custody?
Starting a custody case may not be the path that all parents who are living separately will take. 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 or there may be other reasons that a parent doesn’t want to involve the court system. Some of the benefits of a custody order are that the order can give you the right to make decisions about your child (legal custody) and the right to to have your child live with you (physical custody). If you decide not to get a custody order, then each parent may be considered to have equal rights to make decisions for the child and to have the child in their home.
While a custody order may help in many ways, generally, a parent may not need a custody order to file for child support as long as child primarily lives with that parent.
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 WY Finding a Lawyer to seek out legal advice.
How the custody process works
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?
When deciding who will have custody, the judge will try to make an arrangement that s/he thinks is in the best interest of your child.1 Some of the factors that the judge will consider are:
- the quality of the relationship each child has with each parent;
- each parent’s ability to provide proper care for the child, including arranging for childcare if needed;
- how “fit” and “competent” the judge thinks each parent is;
- how willing each parent is to accept all of the responsibilities of parenting, including:
- caring for your child at certain specified times; and
- letting the other parent care for your child at other specified times;
- how the parents and each child can best maintain and improve a relationship with each other;
- how the parents and each child interact and communicate with each other and how this can be improved;
- how willing each parent is to allow the other parent to provide care without interference and to respect the other parent’s rights and responsibilities, including the right to privacy;
- the distance between the parents’ homes;
- the current physical and mental ability of each parent to care for each child;1
- any domestic violence or child abuse committed by the other parent;2 and
- anything else the judge believes affects your child’s best interest.1
1 Wyoming Statutes § 20-2-201(a)
2 Wyoming Statutes § 20-2-201(c)
Can a parent who committed violence get custody or visitation?
When deciding custody, the judge must consider any evidence of domestic violence or child abuse that you can prove. The judge is supposed to determine that such abuse is contrary to (goes against) your children’s best interests and any arrangements for visitation are supposed to be designed to protect you and your children from further harm.1 The judge could give the abusive parent visitation, allow the abusive parent to have only supervised visitation, or deny the abusive parent visitation altogether.
1 W.S. § 20-2-201(c)
Can a non-parent get visitation rights?
If you are the child’s grandparent or great-grandparent, then you may be able to get visitation rights. After holding a hearing, the judge will grant you reasonable visitation rights if s/he thinks that it would be in the best interest of the child and that it would not substantially impair the rights of the parents.1Note: If the child is no longer living with his/her parents because s/he was adopted, the grandparent can only file for visitation if the child was adopted by at least one of his/her blood relatives. If neither adopting parent is related by blood to the child, the grandparent cannot file for visitation.2
Aside from grandparents, the only other person who can file for visitation is someone who:
- is not a blood relative to the child; and
- within the past 18 months, was the child’s primary caregiver for a period of 6 months or more.3
After holding a hearing, the judge will grant you reasonable visitation rights if s/he thinks that it would be in the best interest of the child and that it would not substantially impair the rights of the parents.3
1 W.S. § 20-7-101(e),(a)
2 W.S. § 20-7-101(c)
3 W.S. § 20-7-102(a)
Do I need a lawyer?
Although a lawyer is not required to file for custody, it can be highly beneficial to have one, especially if the abuser has a lawyer. A lawyer who is knowledgeable about custody can help to make sure that your rights are protected. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may be able to find sources of free or low-cost legal help on our WY Finding a Lawyer page.
If you are going to be in court without a lawyer, our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section may be useful to you.
Could a judge require me to take parenting classes?
Yes. In cases involving child custody, the court may order the parents to attend classes parenting classes. If the custody issues are being dealt with as part of a divorce, the judge could order you to take classes that deal with lessening the impact of divorce on your children, for example.1 If you are the victim of domestic violence, you may want to specifically request that you and the abuser take the classes at different times or different locations.
1 W.S. § 20-2-201(f)
After a custody order is in place
If a custody order is already in place, how can I get it changed?
To change a custody or visitation order that is already in place, you need to file a petition to modify the order (which you can find on the Wyoming Courts website). A petition to modify would generally not be filed right away after the judge issues the custody order. For the judge to grant you a change in custody or visitation, you need to show that there has been a material (substantial) change in circumstances since the order was issued and that changing the order would be in the best interests of your child. Although there are many things that can qualify as a material change in circumstances, the law specifically identifies the “repeated and unreasonable failure of the custodial parent to allow visitation provided for in the custody order” as one example of a material change that can cause the judge to modify the order.1
Also, if a parent is in the military and gets temporarily deployed, is ordered to move a substantial distance away, or there is some other military-related reason that s/he can’t exercise his/her custody or visitation responsibilities temporarily, this could be grounds to temporarily modify an order. However, the temporary duty, mobilization or deployment and the resulting disruption to the child’s schedule are not considered a “material change in circumstances” for the purpose of seeking a permanent modification of the order.2Note: During the time that the service member parent is away, his/her visitation rights can be used by his/her family member who has a close and substantial relationship to the child.3
In addition, 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.
1 W.S. § 20-2-204(c)
2 W.S. § 20-2-205(a)
3 W.S. § 20-2-205(b)
Can I change the state where the case is being heard?
Can a parent who does not have custody have access to the child's records?
Yes. Generally, both custodial and non-custodial parents have the same right of access to any records relating to their child, including school records, activities, teachers, teachers’ conferences, medical/dental treatment providers, and mental health records. However, a judge can order otherwise.1 If you believe that you or your child will be in danger if the other parent can access these records, you can mention this to the judge and try to prove why the other parent’s access should be limited or taken away.
1 W.S § 20-2-201(e)