Vermont law no longer uses the term “custody,” choosing to replace it with “parental rights and responsibilities.” Likewise, the legislature changed the term “visitation” to “parent-child contact.” The purpose underlying these changes is to eliminate the negative tone usually associated with the old terms, and to foster a policy of continued physical and emotional support between separated or divorced parents and their children. (15 V.S.A. § 650.)
At the outset, it’s important to note that the court will base any decisions involving children on what a judge believes to be in the best interests of the child. (We’ll explore this in greater detail below.)
“Parental rights and responsibilities” relates to a child’s physical living arrangements, parent-child contact, education, medical and dental care, religion, travel, and any other matter involving a child’s welfare and upbringing. Under the statute, there are two types of parental responsibility: legal and physical.
“Legal responsibility” refers to making the major decisions affecting the child’s life, such as where the child will attend school and the child’s religious upbringing. “Physical responsibility” encompasses where the child will live, and the handling of the child’s routine daily care. Legal and physical responsibility can be held by one parent, or shared between them. (15 V.S.A. § 664.)
The courts prefer that parents reach an agreement on rights and responsibilities, and the presumption is that such an agreement is in the best interests of the child. (15 V.S.A. § 666 (a).) Any agreement must contain certain provisions regarding:
If the parents can’t agree on legal or physical responsibilities, the court will create a shared custody plan for both legal and physical responsibilities, or it will assign either or both types of responsibility to one parent. (15 V.S.A. § 665 (a).)
In making its decision about assigning legal or physical responsibility, the court can’t apply a preference for one parent over the other because of the sex of the child, the sex of a parent, or a parent’s financial resources. (15 V.S.A. § 665 (c).)
Certain situations may warrant a request for emergency custody. Vermont law addresses the requirements and process. For example, a court can enter an order for temporary custody if it finds there’s immediate danger of physical or emotional harm to minor children. (15 V.S.A. § 1104.)
You can find additional information on the Vermont Department for Children and Families website.
When it comes to parental rights, Vermont espouses the greatest possible parent-child contact, to the degree that this is in the child’s best interest. So if the court ordered, or the parents agreed on, one of the parents having sole physical responsibility (meaning the child primarily lives with that parent), there will be a schedule put in place for when the other parent will spend time with the child.
There’s no particular template for parent-child contact. It can be as broad or as narrow as the court feels appropriate, or the parents agree to. A classic scenario is where the parent with whom the child doesn’t primarily reside has the child overnight every other weekend, and spends time with the child one or two evenings per week. Perhaps there’s extended overnight stays in the summer or during school breaks. But each family’s circumstances are different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all arrangement.
There are situations where the courts will place restrictions on parent-child contact. Under the law, if within the ten years prior to the parent-child contact order, one of the parents has been convicted of domestic violence against the other parent, or has been found to have committed certain types of abuse against a family or household member, the court may award parent-child contact to that parent if the court finds that adequate provision can be made for the child’s safety or the safety of a parent who’s a victim of domestic violence. (15 V.S.A. § 665a (a).)
Among the protective measures the court can order are:
If one parent interferes with the other parent’s parent-child contact rights without good cause (such as a reasonable fear for the child’s safety), it could lead to serious consequences for that parent, including being held in contempt of court. (15 V.S.A. § 668a.)
As seen above, this phrase is of great significance, because every decision a judge makes involving parental rights and responsibilities revolves around it. In order to assist judges in making their determination of what’s in a child’s best interest on a case-by-case basis, the law provides them with factors to consider, including:
You can ask a judge to modify (change) a parental rights and responsibilities order, but you must have a good reason. Under Vermont law, you have to file a motion (written request) with the court, showing there’s been a real, substantial, and unanticipated change of circumstances from when the court issued the current order. (15 V.S.A. § 668 (a).) For example, if one of the parents has to move out of state for work-related reasons, abiding by the current parental rights and responsibilities order may no longer be possible.
Pay careful attention to the word “unanticipated” in the above paragraph. It means you have to prove that the facts you’re basing your modification request on constitute a new development. If it’s something you knew about, or should have foreseen, when the current order went into effect, you could be out of luck.
Note that if the order being modified involves “physical responsibility”, the court will order a hearing to see whether child support needs to be adjusted. (15 V.S.A. § 668 (b).)