Deciding child custody and visitation can be one of the most complex parts of divorce or separation. A child's best interests are at the heart of child custody in Rhode Island.
This article provides an overview of Rhode Island's child custody and visitation laws. If you still have questions after reading this article, contact a local family law attorney for advice.
When parents separate or divorce, a judge will enter an order designating physical and legal custody. Parents can reach custody agreements on their own or through mediation. A judge will review any custody agreement to ensure that it serves a child's best interests. If it does, a judge will enter the custody agreement as a court order.
When parents can't agree on visitation and custody, they will have to go to court and complete a hearing or trial, after which a judge will determine custody.
A parent with physical custody lives in the same household as the child and is responsible for providing 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 scheduled visitation or parenting time.
The parent who lives with the child the majority of the time is generally called the "custodial parent" and the other parent is called the "noncustodial parent."
"Legal custody" refers to a parent's right to make major medical, educational, and religious decisions on the child's behalf. In many cases, parents may share legal custody of their child.
Yet, even a parent without legal custody may make emergency medical decisions for the child. When parents can't agree on a certain aspect of the child's care, the custodial parent has the final say. Like physical custody, parents can share legal custody or one parent may have sole legal and physical custody over a child.
Rhode Island has enacted visitation guidelines that set forth a minimum amount of parenting time. "Parenting time" generally refers to the time each parent spends with the child.
In almost all cases, except where one parent's parental rights have been terminated, each parent is entitled to parenting time with his or her child. 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.
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.
When parents can't agree, judge may order the couple to attend mediation before setting a trial. Even when a court orders mediation, it is still a voluntary process. In other words, no one can force you or your spouse to settle at mediation. A mediator acts as a neutral third-party to help couples resolve their differences. If you're able to resolve custody issues at mediation, a mediator will prepare an agreement for you and your ex to sign and submit to the judge for approval. For couples who aren't able to resolve custody through mediation, a judge will decide custody at trial according to a child's best interests. See RI Gen. Laws § 15-5-29 (2020).
If you're filing for sole custody in Rhode Island, keep in mind that no single factor will determine the outcome of your custody case. Instead, a judge will review your family's overall circumstances to determine your child's best interests. Specifically, some factors a judge will consider include:
In addition, a judge may consider any factor that is relevant to the child's well-being, but there are factors that a judge explicitly can't consider. See Pettinato v. Pettinato, 582 A.2d 909 (R.I. 1990).
For example, courts can't consider a parent's gender in a custody proceeding, and mother doesn't have an automatic advantage in custody cases. However, Rhode Island child custody laws allow 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 one parent's history of domestic violence or abuse.
There is no specific age when a judge will automatically consider a child's preferences on custody in Rhode Island. Generally, a sufficiently mature child who can express a well-reasoned custodial preference can usually express an opinion in a custody case. However, a court is more like to take seriously a teenager's custodial preference over the wishes of a toddler.
Neither parent can prevent visits between the child and the other parent. A parent who interferes with visitation can be held in contempt of court. Occasionally, children may balk at going to visits. Some parents ask at "what age can a child refuse visitation?," but there's no clear answer.
Parents have a responsibility to encourage visits between the child and the other parent. For example, a judge will expect a parent to take a preschooler to visits over the child's objection (unless the child's safety is at issue). Parents have less control over older teens, and a judge won't sanction a teen (or a parent) if the teen is refusing visits. At best a judge can encourage the child to foster a relationship with that parent.
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 nonmoving 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:
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.