Here’s what you should know if you’re engaged in a child custody action in Alaska.
- What are the Types of Child Custody in Alaska?
- Determining Child Custody in Alaska
- What is Alaska’s Best Interests of the Child Standard?
- What to Know About Parenting Plans
- How Do I Modify an Alaska Custody or Visitation Order?
- Alaska Child Custody FAQs
What are the Types of Child Custody in Alaska?
Alaska child custody laws generally award custody to whoever they think will be able to serve the best interests of the child. Preference is given to the parents, but sometimes, another person with a significant connection to the child may receive custody instead. A nonparent must prove that the biological parents are unfit a judge may award custody to the nonparent when both parents have a history of domestic violence against each other.
Parents or the courts must decide on legal and physical custody. Physical custody is where the child lives. Legal custody gives one or both parents the right to make decisions about important issues such as medical care, where the child goes to school, and religious upbringing, among others.
Courts prefer ongoing and frequent contact with both parents so the custody award will often include joint custody provisions unless there is a reason why sole custody is a better choice.
Joint physical custody is when both parents share the physical care and supervision of the child so that the child can spend frequent and quality time with both parents. Shared custody does not necessarily mean that the parents see the child for equal time. Joint physical custody in Alaska is when either parent has the child for less than 70% of the child’s time during a one-year period.
Joint legal custody means both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child. The court may also allow one parent to make certain decisions on her own while both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for other decisions.
Alaskan judges have broad discretion to decide how custody is awarded and each custody case is decided individually. There are no set formulas that rigidly decide custody.
Judges consider domestic violence when deciding custody. There is a presumption that a parent who has a history of committing domestic violence against the other parent, a child, or a domestic partner may not be awarded sole legal custody, sole physical custody, joint legal custody, or joint physical custody of a child. A parent with a history of abuse or child neglect or evidence of domestic violence that poses a threat of serious physical injury can take a step to show the court they are no longer a threat to the child. This evidence may also be weighed when making a decision.
When it is not safe for a child to be alone with a parent, the court may order supervised visitation. The visit will be monitored by a third party, a relative, a family friend, or someone appointed by the court. Supervised visitation may also take place at a state-sanctioned visitation center. The court may require the parent to attend an intervention program and parenting education class before allowing unsupervised parenting time.
Also, if a parent is deployed into the military, they may have the option of delegating their custody or visitation rights to a family member (called “delegation” of visitation). It may also be possible to temporarily modify a custody order until the parent returns from deployment.
Under Alaska law, within ten days of the deployed parent notifying the other parent and court that they can resume custody or visitation, the temporary, modified custody order will no longer be in effect, and the parents will return to the terms of the original, permanent custody order.
When the court awards physical custody to one parent, the judge will also create a visitation schedule for the non-custodial parent. If the parents can create a visitation schedule for their family, the court will approve it most of the time. Parents often use a mediator or a family law attorney to help them draft a parenting plan which includes a visitation schedule and several other detailed instructions.
Because divorces can take a while to finalize, judges will issue a temporary custody order. These temporary orders, also known as pendente lite orders, are in effect for the duration of the divorce proceedings. They end when the divorce is final and are replaced by permanent orders addressing custody issues that parents or the court create.
If you need the judge to decide on temporary custody before your final hearing or trial, you will need to request the judge by filing a Motion for Interim Orders, along with an affidavit and a proposed order.
Read More: Military Divorce Alaska
Determining Child Custody in Alaska
Cases involving child custody require parents to watch the Listen to the Children video at the courthouse or complete the web-based class Children in Between. Depending on the type of case, you must complete this requirement before filing or before the entry of the final decree in the case.
Alaskan courts must have jurisdiction over a case before you can file in the state. Custody jurisdiction is state law, but Alaska has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA).
Under the UCCJEA, a parent can generally only file for custody in the “home state” of the child.
The “home state” is where the child has lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least six consecutive months. If the child is less than six months old, the “home state” is the state where the child has lived from birth.
If you and your child recently moved to a new state, generally, you cannot file for custody in that new state until you have lived there for at least six months. Until then, a custody case can be started in the state that the child last lived in for at least six months.
Alaska judges decide custody based on the child’s best interest. Judges do not give preference to one parent over the other because of their sex. Instead, the judge must consider all of the following factors when determining custody:
- The child’s physical, emotional, mental, religious, and social needs
- Each parent’s ability to meet the child’s various needs
- The child’s relationship with each parent
- the stability of the child’s current home environment
- Each parent’s willingness to encourage a close relationship between the child and the other parent
- Either parent’s history of child abuse, substance abuse, domestic violence or sexual assault
- The effect of other people living in either parent’s household
- The substance abuse history of anyone living in either parent’s household
- The child’s preference, if the child is of sufficient age and ability to form an opinion, and
- Any other factors the court finds relevant.
Generally, none of these factors take precedence over others except when a parent has a history of domestic violence against the other parent or the child.
Also, courts tend to give more weight to an older child’s preference and less weight to a younger child’s opinion. Courts don’t have a specific age at which they must consider the child’s preference, so each judge must make an individual determination for each child. However, the child’s opinion is not binding. The judge still has the final say in the matter.
Can custody be decided in Tribal Court?
Yes, if the children and parents are members of a tribe, and that tribe has an active Tribal Court.
Read More: Alaska Child Support Laws and FAQs
What is Alaska’s Best Interests of the Child Standard?
The best interests of the child standard means that all custody decisions are made by putting the child’s needs above everything else. Parents’ desires and other factors noted above may feed into this decision, but ultimately it is the best interests standard that will guide all decisions.
It is usually best if parents can work together to reach a custody agreement to create a parenting plan. As long as the deal is in the child’s best interests, the judge will usually sign off on the agreement, and the parents will not need to make arguments at a trial.
What to Know About Parenting Plans
Parenting plans are detailed instructions about each child’s physical and legal custody when parents divorce or are legally separated. Alaskan courts prefer parents to create a plan and present it to the court. But when disagreements occur in a custody case, judges will step in and decide how various plan elements should be implemented.
A parenting plan should contain the following elements:
- Physical custody details, including the number of overnight visits for each parent.
- Legal custody and how those responsibilities are allocated between parents.
- Holiday and school break schedules
- Vacation and travel approval and advance notifications
- The manner of exchanging children, including when, where, and time of day
- Transporting children for visitation and other necessary movements
- How are tuition, medical costs, school activities, hobbies, and recreational activities expenses handled?
- Child support payment amounts and recourse if a parent falls behind.
- How will both parents access records and information
- How will a child communicate with both parents
- How is communication between parents handled?
- Contact with other family members and friends
- Children’s use of technology and online activities
- How to address child discipline and mental health issues
- Guidelines when a new partner is involved
- Grooming and dress guidelines (extreme haircuts, make-up, etc.)
- Drinking or drug use in the presence of the children
Keep in mind that a parenting plan is a legal document and once it is approved by the court, parents are required to follow all the elements of the plan. If a parent does not, they may face contempt of court charges that could result in fines, penalties, paying court costs, and in some cases, jail time.
You cannot withhold parenting time if the other parent falls behind in support payments. And both parents must not interfere with the child’s relationship with the other parent in any way.
How Do I Modify an Alaska Custody or Visitation Order?
Circumstances often change after a divorce, and a custody plan are put in place. When these changes are significant, it may result in either parent requesting a modification of the existing child support order.
Significant changes may include one parent moving out of state, medical issues, job changes or job losses, domestic violence, criminal activities, or other major life events. Also, a parent’s temporary duty, recruitment, or deployment to military service could be the reason to temporarily modify an order.
When seeking a modification, parents must prove that a change in the custody order is in the child’s best interests
To change a custody order, you will usually need to go to the court that issued the order, even if you have moved. You must file a Motion to Modify Custody with the court to start the process.
Alaska will generally keep jurisdiction over a custody order made in an Alaska court unless neither of the parents and the child continues to live in Alaska, or Alaska no longer has significant connections with evidence about the child.
Requirements for a modification can be complicated, and it is usually best to get legal advice as part of this process.
Read More: How to Prepare for a Divorce Hearing
Alaska Child Custody FAQs
Can I get visitation of the child if I am a grandparent?
In some cases, yes. If you file for visitation before a court case for custody of the child, you may get visitation if you have established or attempted to establish ongoing personal contact with the child and the visitation is in the child’s best interest.
If you file for visitation after a final custody order has been issued, you can file for visitation only if:
- You did not request visitation from the court during the custody/adoption case
- There has been a change in circumstances relating to the custodial parent or the child that justifies reconsideration of your visitation rights.
What if a parent wants to move out of state?
As soon as a custody petition is filed, the court will issue a standing order prohibiting either parent from removing the child from Alaska without permission from the court or the other parent.
If a parent wants to move out of state with the couple’s children, they must get the other parent’s consent or file a motion with the court requesting permission to relocate with the children.
Do not simply leave the state with the children, even on vacation, while a case is pending. This could be considered custodial interference, a crime of domestic violence in Alaska, and could result in criminal prosecution or losing custody of the children.