Rhode Island Child Custody Laws

Rhode Island Child Custody

Here is what you should know if you’re engaged in a child custody action in Rhode Island.

What are the Types of Child Custody in Rhode Island?

Child custody decisions are usually determined by a Providence Family Court judge or general magistrate, whose primary concern is determining placement with the parent who serves the children’s interests.

Placement, legal custody, and visitation are three components of a child custody order with final decisions rendered at the end of a divorce.

Placement involves determining the location where the child will reside. Physical custody is the same concept as physical placement. The parent without physical custody will have a visitation schedule set according to the family court judge’s order or by the parent’s mutual agreement. The parent with primary physical custody who cares for the child most of the time is sometimes called the “custodial parent,” while the other is the “non-custodial parent.”

Other legal concepts you should know are shared physical placement when the child resides nearly equally with both parents.  Split custody is when one or more child resides with both parents.

Legal custody decides which parent will make important life decisions for a child, such as medical care, religious upbringing, and where they will go to school.

Legal custody will be joint custody to both parties or sole custody to the parent with physical placement.  Parties share joint custody in most Rhode Island custody cases.

Sole custody is not as common as it was in the past, but it can still be awarded to parents in certain circumstances. A Rhode Island at-fault divorce may lead a court to rule in favor of a sole custody arrangement. So could a history of domestic violence from one parent, otherwise joint custody is the standard.

A noncustodial parent usually has visitation rights.  Visitation is defined as the rights of a non-custodial parent to see their child.

Rhode Island courts assume that it is beneficial for both biological parents to have shared physical custody or visitation unless it is shown to be against the child’s best interests.

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Determining Child Custody in Rhode Island

In Rhode Island family law cases, every child custody case must be determined individually based on the circumstances of the case, and to make sure the child’s best interests are always protected.  Judges have significant flexibility on a case-by-case basis to decide issues pertaining the child custody.

While courts can decide custody matters, the preference is that the parents create a plan that both agree on.  This saves time, money, and aggravation.  A mediator is often used to help create a suitable plan.  This neutral third party listens to both sides, offers alternatives, and helps hash out particulars so that a suitable plan can be presented to a judge for approval.

The court will usually honor any arrangement that both parents agree on, provided it doesn’t harm or endanger the child.  When mediation fails, the parties can request a conference with the judge at the first court date, and the judge can make suggestions that might help to resolve the case.

Sometimes, a judge can order a homestudy or ask for a guardian ad litem to represent the child. A homestudy is a report made by an investigator at the Family Court Investigating Unit, after interviewing the parents, children, and professionals involved with the children.  The homestudy also includes home visits and other actions to give the judge an accurate account of what is happing in the child’s life.

A guardian ad litem is an attorney or other qualified professional appointed to represent the child’s best interest. The guardian does the same research that a homestudy investigator would do but acts as the child’s attorney.

In a Rhode Island custody case, the judge considers the most important factor is the “best interest of the child, ” based on all the input they receive.

Some of the factors a judge looks at to reach a decision will include:

  • The wishes of the child’s parent or parents regarding the child’s custody
  • The reasonable preference of the child if the court deems the child to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference
  • The interaction and interrelationship of the child with the child’s parent or parents, the child’s siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interest
  • The child’s adjustment to the child’s home, school, and community
  • The mental and physical health of all individuals involved
  • The stability of the child’s home environment
  • The moral fitness of the child’s parents
  • The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate a close and continuous parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent

Rhode Island has enacted visitation guidelines that set forth a minimum amount of parenting time for each parent as part of a final custody order.

In most cases, except where one parent’s parental rights have been terminated, minimum parenting time is generally one weeknight per week and visits every other weekend. A judge may award a noncustodial parent more, but not less, parenting time than the minimum amount.

It’s essential to note that gender and race play no role in reaching a decision.  Fathers and mothers are viewed equally in all instances.

Read More:  Rhode Island Divorce Guide

What is Rhode Island’s Best Interests of the Child Standard?

In all Rhode Island custody agreements, the primary factor that drives a judge’s decision is the “best interests of the child.”

It is subjective but lets all parties know that the child’s needs come first instead of what works best for each parent.  The factors noted above are used to reach this best interest standard.  The court may also use any other means to reach a fair and just agreement.

Children may have a say in which parent they prefer, but that is only taken into account if the child is old enough and mature enough to express an informed opinion.  It is also advisory only.  The judge has the final say in all cases.

What to Know About Parenting Plans

Parenting plans are detailed instructions regarding how custody is handled after an agreement is reached.  Courts prefer that parents develop a plan on their own, but often, parents get into disagreements, and the court will need to step in a decide custody issues.

In some cases, parents may retain a mediator or a family law attorney to help them draft a plan which 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
  • How will a child communicate with both parents
  • How is communication between parents handled?
  • Contact with other family members and friends
  • How are tuition, medical costs, school activities, hobbies, and recreational activities expenses handled?
  • Child support payment amounts and recourse if a parent falls behind.
  • The manner of exchanging children, including when, where, and time of day
  • Transporting children for visitation and other necessary movements
  • Access to records and information
  • 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

Read More:  50/50 Custody: Try It, You Might Just Like It

How Do I Modify a Rhode Island Custody or Visitation Order?

Family circumstances often change after an agreement is put in place.  Parents have the option of petitioning the court if these changes are significant.  That may include health issues, a job loss, if one parent wants to move, or other similar life events.

If you request a change, you will have to present evidence of the substantial change from when that decision was entered, and you will have to show that the new court order is in the child’s best interest.  In some cases, parents may agree beforehand and present the judge with a new agreement they have reached.  The judge will review the modification, and as long as it still meets the child’s best interests they will sign the new order.

It’s important to understand that both parents must follow the current order that’s in place until the judge approves a change.  Failure to do so can create legal problems that the court will look at which could lead to fines, penalties, or changes in the current order.

Rhode Island Child Custody FAQs

What happens if a parent wants to relocate?

When one parent wants to move away, it can pose challenges to custody and visitation schedules. If the move is out-of-state, it may even justify a change in custody. A custodial parent seeking to relocate should provide the other parent with reasonable notice of the intended relocation.

The other parent can file an objection with the court to try to prevent the parent from relocating.  This will result in a hearing to determine if the move is in the child’s best interests.  The Rhode Island Supreme Court has established several factors a court should consider in determining whether relocation will serve a child’s best interests:

  • the parent’s reasons for moving
  • the child’s relationship with each parent, siblings, and extended family members
  • the potential educational and emotional impact of the minor child’s relocation
  • the child’s preference, taking into account the child’s age and maturity
  • the non-relocating parent’s reasons for opposing the move
  • how the relocation may benefit the child financially, emotionally, or in terms of quality of life
  • any other factor relevant to the child’s well-being.

Do Rhode Island courts consider domestic violence when determining custody?

Rhode Island has laws that explicitly permit the consideration of domestic violence when deciding custody.  The court has a presumption against custody for abusers.  Custody may still be granted but only under strict conditions, including supervised visitation to ensure a child’s safety.

Do grandparents have visitation rights in Rhode Island?

Rhode Island has special statutes regarding grandparents’ visitation rights.  Visitation may be granted if a parent dies, gets divorced, or the parents were never married. Regardless of state presumptions regarding grandparents’ visitation rights under specific circumstances, a Rhode Island court may allow or prevent visitation rights based on the child’s best interests.

Generally, it is an uphill battle for step-parents who can also seek visitation but may face a tough battle if bother parents are alive and opposed to the visitation.

Can parents be granted visitation rights after termination of parental rights or adoption in Rhode Island?

In Rhode Island, it may not be possible to be granted visitation rights after losing parental rights or giving up a child for adoption. This is the case with both biological parents and previous guardians.

The judge ordered a “fixed visitation” schedule. What is that?

A fixed visitation schedule is where the judge orders times and sometimes places where the non-custodial parent is to have parental visitation. For example, a non-custodial parent could have visitation rights on Tuesday and Thursday nights or only on holiday weekends.

In addition, some courts are more inclined to issue fixed visitation schedules because it provides some stability that children can rely upon in a generally upsetting and confusing period of their lives.

If an ex-spouse has a history of abuse, especially towards your child, you can point this out to the court when deciding parental visitation rights. Generally speaking, if a court thinks that the non-custodial parent is likely to harm or abuse the child during visitation time, the court will order that all visitation is fixed and supervised.

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