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Maryland’s authoritative guide to divorce.

Custody of children is one of the most stressful subjects you will encounter. Fear of losing a child causes panic and emotional upheaval. To reduce the fear of the unknown it is helpful to educate yourself on how child custody and access is determined.

There are two types of custody: Legal custody and physical custody/access (sometimes called visitation).

Legal custody is the ability of a parent to make large decisions about a child’s life. This is not deciding a child’s diet, or who is allowed to be around a child - - those decisions are made by each parent for their own home. The decisions in legal custody are most often medical, therapy and school. However, it is important to keep in mind that most legal custody decisions are already made for you. Should your child have her appendix removed - -a doctor usually makes that decision, though parents may decide which hospital. Braces? A dentist makes this decision. School choice? If a child is not yet in school, which district is a decision parents need to make together but otherwise the child would normally stay in his previous school district. Therapy is the most controversial decision that couple will make, and if parents have shared legal custody, one parent can block access to therapy.

Often parents are awarded “share legal custody” which means that both parents make decisions. Sometimes a parent will be given “tie-breaking” authority, which means that after both parents have consulted, one parent will make the final decision. Occasionally a parent will be given sole legal custody, but this is rare in situations where both parents are involved with a child.

Physical or residential custody is the most hotly contested issue regarding children. For child support, the number of overnights a child spends with each parent may determine the amount of child support paid. Additionally, splitting time between parents means that one parent may go for a long stretch without seeing a child. This is difficult for a parent who is accustomed to seeing a child every day.

There are many factors which a court may consider in deciding child custody. In Maryland, there is no automatic preference for the mother, both parents stand equal in the eyes of the law. How parents handle child access in the early stages of separation sets the stage for a formal custody determination at a later point in time. Before separating, a spouse should carefully consider what type of custody would be appropriate and what can be done to ensure that custody is decided actively by the parents rather than passively by inaction. If separation is on the horizon, consider engaging a child specialist to help with pre-planning for child access during separation. If your spouse will not discuss custody or is assuming that he or she will take custody of the children, then pre-separation planning and divorce coaching will help you take back control. For more information on divorce planning or coaching, click here.