Child Custody in Arizona: The Best Interests of the Child

Arizona courts award child custody in accordance with the “best interests of the child”.  Factors that determine the child’s best interest include the preferences of both the child and the parents and the child’s current relationship with each parent.  The nature of the relationships between the child and parents, siblings, and other significant individuals is another determining factor. The child’s ability to adjust to current and new surroundings at home, in school, and in the community, and the mental and physical health of the child and the parents are also considered.

Courts also consider which parent is more likely to allow frequent and meaningful contact between the child and the other parent, and which parent has a history of caring for the child.  A parent who uses coercion or duress to obtain a custody agreement is less likely to get a favorable court ruling than a parent who shows a willingness to cooperate with the other parent. 

Courts will also consider past convictions of false reporting of abuse or neglect by a parent, and evidence of a history of domestic violence or child abuse by either parent.

Joint Custody

Arizona judges aren’t supposed to prefer one type of custody over another—in other words, they shouldn’t consider joint custody better than sole custody, but should make decisions based solely on the child’s best interests. (They’re not supposed to prefer one parent over the other based on the parent’s sex, either.) If a judge does think that joint custody is in the child’s best interests, the judge can order joint custody even if one of the parents objects to it. Whether joint custody is in the child’s best interests depends on a few factors, including whether the parents have agreed to joint custody, whether joint custody is logistically feasible, and whether the parents are likely to be able to cooperate in decision-making.

Parenting Plan

Both parents are required to submit a jointly-prepared parenting plan before a court grants a joint custody award, setting out a proposal regarding each parent’s decision-making rights related to the child’s education, health, and religion.  The plan should include a schedule outlining details of where the child will reside during holidays and school vacations.  Parenting plans should also include a proposed system for resolving disputes, a plan for seeking future modification of the plan, and what to do in the event of alleged breach of the agreement, and procedures for periodic reviews of each parents’ custody plan.  Additionally, both parents must submit statements acknowledging an understanding that joint custody may not result in equal parenting time and indicating they read, understand, and will comply with notification requirements set forth by the state. 

Modifications

A custodial or noncustodial parent may ask the court to modify a previous custody decree.  However, a court won’t agree to a modification unless

  •       the initial custody decree is at least 12 months old and the child’s physical, mental, moral, or emotional health is endangered by the existing arrangement
  •      domestic violence or child abuse occurred after the initial custody award order
  •      one or both parents have failed to comply with the ordered custody decree, or
  •      the custodial parent is in the military and the military family care plan is not in the best interests of the child during the parent’s military deployment.
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