Virginia courts use the best interests of the child standard to determine custody and visitation of minor children. This means judges consider how parenting plans may affect children, and try to make orders that ensure the child's life will change as little as possible during and after the divorce. Judges also want to ensure that the children will still have a meaningful relationship with both parents. Generally, the court will encourage parents to share the responsibility of raising their children, and it may award custody to both parents (joint custody) or to one parent (sole custody).
The factors considered by the court in evaluating what's in the best interests of the child include the age, physical, and mental health of the child and each parent, the relationship between the child and each parent, and each parent's role in the child's life. This includes whether each parent is a positive part of the child's life and can meet the child's emotional, intellectual, and physical needs. The court also looks at the child's relationship with siblings and other family members, and the child's preference if the child is old enough to express one. Judges also want to ensure that each parent supports the child's continuing contact with the other parent. A parents who denies or interferes with the other parent's visitation with the child or who do not cooperate with the other parent may not receive as much visitation as they would like. Likewise, if there is a history of abuse in the family, a judge may make very specific orders about visitation with the abusive parent.
Many judges in Virginia encourage parents to work together to create a custody and visitation schedule that is in the best interests of their child. Parents can do this together or with the help of a mediator and may then submit the plan to the judge. The judge will often adopt the parents' schedule if they agree on everything and the schedule is good for the child. Or, parents may agree on everything except one issue, like a holiday schedule or where the child will go to school, for example. If that's the case, the parents may ask the judge to help them make a decision about the issue they're stuck on. If the court sees that the parents are cooperating generally but can't work out every single issue, the judge will work with the parents to come up with a schedule that works for everyone--or will decide the issue for them.