Here’s what you should know if you’re engaged in a child custody action in Louisiana.
- What are the Types of Child Custody in Louisiana?
- Determining Child Custody in Louisiana
- What is The Best Interests of the Child Standard?
- What to Know About Parenting Plans
- How Do I Modify a Louisiana Custody or Visitation Order?
- Louisiana Child Custody FAQs
What are the Types of Child Custody in Louisiana?
There are several types of child custody in Louisiana. The first determination is between legal custody and physical custody.
Legal custody refers to the arrangement where both parents are involved in raising the child, and making decisions about schooling, health care, religion, and other significant life events.
Physical custody determines where the child lives and how much time they spend with each parent. One parent is typically designated as the primary custodial parent, and the child spends the majority of time living with that person. The other parent is referred to as noncustodial and has visitation rights.
Depending on the facts of a case and what is in the child’s best interests, courts can either award sole custody, shared custody, or joint custody for legal and physical custody matters.
In a sole custody arrangement, one parent receives primary custody of the child. This parent would have the sole legal custody of the child. This parent would not be obliged to exchange information with the other parent regarding the child or to confer with the other parent in exercising their decision-making authority.
Sole custody is only awarded if parents agree or if custody to one parent is shown by clear and convincing evidence to serve the child’s best interest. That may be due to the other parent having substance abuse, criminal or domestic abuse issues in the past or present.
When one parent is awarded sole physical custody, the other parent may or may not have visitation rights. That depends on the best interests of the child and is rarely granted, even with the problems noted above.
Joint custody is the most commonly awarded custody in Louisiana. In a joint custody arrangement, both parents are awarded legal custody of their child but not equal physical custody. Each has the rights and responsibilities of joint custodians, but they do not equally share the physical custody of the child. That may be due to the child’s schedule, locations of the parents’ homes, or other factors that make equal sharing difficult.
In a shared custody arrangement, both parents are awarded legal custody of the child and share equally in the physical custody of the child. The child will spend equal time living with each parent, although a primary physical custodial parent will be designated. Shared custody works best when parents live relatively close to each other.
When a court decides that joint custody will be in the child’s best interests, one of the parents will be the domiciliary parent. Louisiana law defines the domiciliary parent as “the parent with whom the child shall primarily reside…”. That may be a little confusing with joint shared custody, but the domiciliary parent is the tie-breaker regarding decisions regarding the child.
Under a joint custody arrangement, while the domiciliary parent may make the ultimate decision regarding a child’s life, that parent also must discuss that decision with the other joint custodial parent before making that decision.
There are some situations when split custody is appropriate. This occurs when there are multiple children and the parents each have sole custodial or domiciliary parent of at least one child. Courts do not like to split up siblings as a rule, but there are times when this arrangement makes sense.
Louisiana judges may also award visitation rights to other family members or third-party individuals, like grandparents, if the court determines it is in the child’s best interest. The court will consider the length and quality of the relationship between the child and the individual seeking visitation and how the individual seeking custody can provide for the child in a way that the parent cannot. Third-party custody is rare but is sometimes awarded when both parents have substance abuse, criminal or domestic violence issues.
Read More: Pendente Lite: A Complete Guide to Temporary Orders
Determining Child Custody in Louisiana
Louisiana courts prefer that parents reach decisions regarding custody of their children. Sometimes parents will use a mediator or family law attorney to help them do this. However, the court will step in and decide the matter if they can’t reach an agreement as part of the divorce process. The court must approve the terms and conditions even when parents agree.
The child’s best interests are placed above everything else in all child custody matters. Using this standard, the Civil Code of Louisiana lists several factors that a court must consider when deciding custody. Those factors include:
- The love, affection, and other emotional ties between each party and the child
- The capacity and disposition of each party to give the child love, affection, and spiritual guidance and to continue the education and rearing of the child
- The capacity and disposition of each party to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care, and other needs
- The length of time the child has lived in a stable, adequate home environment and the desirability to maintain the continuity of that environment
- The permanence, as a family unit, of the existing or proposed custodial home(s)
- The moral fitness of each party, insofar as it affects the welfare of the child
- The mental and physical health of each party
- The home, school, and community history of the child
- The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be old enough to express a preference
- The willingness and ability of each party to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other party
- The distance between the respective residences of the parties
- The responsibility for the care and rearing of the child previously exercised by each party
- Any other factor relevant to determining custody.
Louisiana courts do not place any of these as more important than others. And all courts will not decide custody based on one or two specific factors.
Judges will decide based on how all the factors combine to meet the child’s best interests. Every case is different, so how the factors blend in each case will be unique as a judge weighs the case’s circumstances.
Read More: The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children (and How to Help Them Cope)
What is The Best Interests of the Child Standard?
Understanding the “best interest of the child” in Louisiana must be determined on a case-by-case basis. This requires a thorough understanding of family life and the motivations behind parents getting divorced.
The best interest standard means the court decides custody based on the child’s needs above all other considerations. The child’s needs are placed above what the parents want. Courts must often try to balance what is practical and what is best as they employ this standard.
What to Know About Parenting Plans
Parenting plans are detailed instructions about all parts of how custody is handled between parents. Courts often require specific callouts for several instances to avoid disagreements before they pop up.
The parenting plan is a court-approved legal document, and parents are expected to follow it at all times. Parents can face contempt of court actions if they don’t, resulting in penalties up to and including modifying a current custody agreement.
Each parenting plan is different, but at a minimum, should include:
- Physical custody, including the number of overnight visits for each parent.
- Visitation schedule for the noncustodial parent
- How are legal custody issues handled, including which parent has responsibilities for specific situations and decisions?
- Child support payment amounts and recourse if a parent falls behind.
- Exchanging children, including when, where, and time of day
- Transporting children for visitation and other necessary movements
- Holiday schedules and school break schedules
- Vacation and travel approval and advance notifications
- Access to a child’s records and information
- A child’s accessibility to communicate with both parents
- How is communication between parents handled?
- The level of contact with other family members and friends
- How are expenses for tuition, medical costs, school activities, hobbies, and recreational activities decided?
- Children’s use of technology and online activities
- How to address child discipline and mental health issues
- Guidelines for when a new partner for either parent is involved
- Grooming and dress guidelines (extreme haircuts, make-up, etc.)
- Drinking or drug use in the presence of the children
How Do I Modify a Louisiana Custody or Visitation Order?
Parents can request modifications to a child custody arrangement under Louisiana child custody laws. Courts prefer parents work out changes on their own and present them to the court. But either parent can petition for a modification and have the court decide the matter.
Modifications often arise out of a change in schedules, if domestic violence or substance abuse is taking place, or when a parent wants to move away, which would place a strain on maintaining the current order.
In all cases, the courts still use the best interests of the child standard and will also revisit the factors used in the original custody award.
Read More: How to Prepare for a Divorce Trial
Louisiana Child Custody FAQs
Does a parent’s gender play a role in custody cases?
No preference is given to mothers or fathers in a Louisiana child custody case. Courts make decisions based on the child’s best interests and do not emphasize whether a mother or a father better serves those interests.
What do I need to know about supervised visitation?
Supervised visitation occurs when a third party must be present during the non-custodial parent’s visitation. The third party may be a relative, a friend, or a social worker assigned by the courts. Supervised visitation is ordered when there is potential for harm to a child during visitation. That may be due to drug abuse or domestic violence issues that have been identified.
Can a child decide who they want to live with for custody purposes?
The court will consider their wishes if a child is old enough and displays reasonable maturity, generally at age 12 or older. However, the child can only express an opinion. The judge will still make a ruling based on the child’s best interests and less on what they want.