Child Custody and Visitation Laws in Rhode Island

Custody and visitation issues are often the most contested and costly aspects of divorce. Learn more about what factors courts in Rhode Island will consider when making custody decisions.

Understanding Legal and Physical Custody

A custody order will designate which parent has physical and legal custody. A parent with physical custody lives in the same household as the child and must provide the child with adequate food, shelter, clothing, and care. Parents may share physical custody—also called “joint custody”—or one parent may be awarded sole physical custody of a child, with the other parent having visitation or parenting time. The parent who lives with the child the majority of the time is generally called the “custodial parent.”

Legal custody involves a parent’s right to make major medical, educational, and even religious decisions on the child’s behalf. Even a parent without legal custody may make emergency medical decisions for the child. In many cases, parents may share legal custody of their child. However, if the parents can’t agree on a certain aspect of the child’s care, the custodial parent makes the final decision. Like physical custody, parents can share legal custody or one parent may have sole legal and physical custody over a child.

What Is Parenting Time?

“Parenting time” generally refers to the time each parent spends with the child. Both parents are entitled to parenting time, unless one parent’s parental rights have been terminated. The noncustodial parent (parent without primary physical custody) is entitled to a minimum amount of time with his or her child. Rhode Island law requires any custody order to grant the noncustodial parent at least one weeknight visit per week and visits every other weekend. A court may deviate from the minimum parenting guidelines and can award additional visitation, but not less.

Who Makes Custody Decisions?

Parents can reach their own custody agreements, but a judge must approve the agreement before it can become an official custody order. Some parents are able to reach an agreement on their own, while others employ the help of a mediator.

A judge may order you and your spouse to attend mediation and try to resolve your case before trial. Even court-ordered mediation is a voluntary process. No one can force you or your spouse to settle at mediation. A mediator is a neutral third-party who is skilled in helping couples resolve their differences. If you’re able to resolve custody issues at mediation, a mediator will prepare a custody agreement for you and your ex to sign and submit to the judge for approval. For couples who aren’t able to resolve custody, a judge will decide and issue a custody order that serves the child’s best interests.

What Factors Impact a Judge’s Custody Decision?

No single factor will determine the outcome of your custody case. Instead, a judge will review your family’s overall circumstances in determining a child’s best interests. Specifically, some factors a judge will consider include:

  • each parent’s desire for custody
  • the child’s relationship with each parent
  • the child’s preference (if the child is of a sufficient age and maturity level)
  • the child’s relationship with siblings and extended family members
  • the child’s adjustment to home, school, and community
  • each parent’s physical and mental health
  • each parent’s moral fitness
  • each parent’s ability to provide the child with a stable environment, and
  • each parent’s willingness to encourage a relationship between the child and the child’s other parent.

In addition, a judge may consider any factor that is relevant to the custody decision, but there are limits. For example, courts can't consider a parent’s gender in a custody proceeding. For example, a mother doesn’t have an automatic advantage. However, Rhode Island law allows a judge to consider a parent’s moral fitness. The meaning of “moral fitness” can be a gray area, but some actions would obviously hurt a parent’s chances at custody, such as a history of domestic violence or abuse.

What Happens if a Parent Relocates?

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 non-moving parent can file an objection with the court to try to prevent the parent from relocating. A judge will hold a hearing to determine whether the move would serve the child’s best interests.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has established several factors a court should consider in determining whether a 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, and
  • any other factor relevant to the child’s well-being.

A child’s best interests are central to your custody case, whether you’re seeking an initial custody determination or hoping to modify your current custody order. Because families are unique, your individual circumstances will determine the outcome of your case. If you have additional questions regarding custody, contact a local Rhode Island attorney for advice.

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