It's a popular misconception that "custody" means one parent gets the children, and the other doesn't. The reality is that custody is multifaceted. The one constant in custody matters is that the outcome must be based on the best interests of the child.
The two main concepts in Wyoming state child custody laws are "legal custody" and "physical custody". Legal custody relates to making important decisions in raising the child, such as education choices, non-emergency medical care, and whether the child will practice a certain religion. Physical custody refers to where the child will reside.
Legal custody and physical custody have subcategories: "sole" custody and "joint" custody. Sole legal custody means only one parent has major decision-making authority. With joint legal custody, both parents have a say in child-rearing decisions.
In a sole physical custody scenario, the child resides with one parent. With joint physical custody, the child lives with each parent for certain periods, which can be anywhere from a few days a week to several months at a time. (Wyo. Stat. § 20-2-201 (d).)
The possibility of another type of custody exists where there is more than one child. This is called "split" custody. Wyoming law allows for one or more of the children to live with one parent, and one or more to live with the other parent. As with all custody decisions, a judicial award of split custody must be in the best interests of the children, and a judge must provide an explanation for the decision.
Although the courts strongly urge parents to come to an agreement on issues of custody and visitation, sometimes that's not possible. In that case, it's up to the court to make the final determination. Often, judges will require a custody evaluation by trained personnel to aid in their decision.
As indicated above, the main consideration for a judge in custody cases is the child's welfare. Wyoming law provides a list of factors a judge must consider when determining "the best interests of the child." Some of these are:
Note that a court can take a child's custody preference into consideration, but only if the court believes the child is old enough and mature enough to have a reasonable opinion. As a practical matter, the older the child, the more weight a judge will give the child's wishes. But a judge isn't obligated to honor a child's request.
The law also provides that evidence of domestic violence, including spousal abuse or child abuse, is automatically considered contrary to the best interests of the child. So a parent who's seeking custody, and is guilty of either of those offenses, is likely out of luck. (Wyo. Stat. § 20-2-201(c).)
The Wyoming custody statute states that a judge's decision may include any combination of the various types of custody. For example, it's possible for a court to award parents joint legal custody, but award one of the parents sole physical custody.
In that regard, notice that the list of "best interests of the child" factors, above, specifically references the geographic distance between the parents' residences. If the parents live far away from each other, a judge might determine that a joint physical custody award that would force the child to switch residences could adversely impact the child's routine. It could interfere with the child's education, as well as social activities. If that's the case, the court might decide that joint physical custody wouldn't be in the child's best interest.
Note also that in any custody proceeding, the law prohibits a judge from giving preference to one parent over the other based on a parent's gender. (Wyo. Stat. § 20-2-201(b).)
Be aware that if a child's health or safety is endangered, and there may be a need for an emergency custody order, Wyoming law does permit this. In fact, in dire situations, a child may be taken into custody without a warrant or an existing order. (Wyo. Stat. § 14-3-405.)
If you're interested in how to file for custody in Wyoming, you can access the state court's website, or consult with a local family law attorney.
When a child is residing with one parent, the court ordinarily grants the other parent visitation rights. As with custody, the child's best interest is the guiding principle. Wyoming law states that the visitation order must:
There's no one-size-fits-all visitation template. The ultimate outcome usually depends on the circumstances of each case. The best arrangements tend to be those that reasonably accommodate the parents' and children's schedules.
In cases where being alone with a parent could endanger the child (such as where there's been spousal abuse or child abuse, for example), a judge can order "supervised" visitation. This means the abusive parent can only visit the child in the presence of an approved third party.
You can file a motion (written legal request) with the court, seeking to change an existing custody or visitation order. However, in order to be successful, you'll have to prove to the court that there's been a material change in circumstances since the entry of the current order, and that the modification would be in the best interests of the children. (Wyo. Stat. § 20-2-204 (c).)
Note that according to a Wyoming court publication, a condition which existed when the current order went into effect does not constitute a material change of circumstances down the road.
An example of a material change in circumstances might be where one of the parents has to move away for job-related reasons. But ultimately it's up to a judge to determine whether a change in circumstances warrants a modification of a custody or visitation order.
Be advised that a parent's military status may impact an existing custody order. (Wyo. Stat. § 20-2-205.)
There's been a bill pending in the Wyoming legislature that would bring the state's custody and visitation laws more in line with a growing number of other states. It would do away with the present custody and visitation terms, and replace them with more benign language, such as "parental responsibilities," "legal decision making," and "parenting time." The purpose would be to attempt to make the process less adversarial.
This bill has been around for a while, so it remains to be seen whether it will become law.