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 two main concepts are legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody relates to making important decisions in raising the child, such as whether the child will practice a certain religion, educational choices, and non-emergency medical care. “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.
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 will also take a child’s 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.
Additionally, the law 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.
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 during the week 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.
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 provide enough detail to promote understanding and compliance. In other words, don’t leave it so open-ended as to lead to the likelihood of misinterpretation, confusion, or possibly deceit.
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.
As of July 1, 2018, Wyoming will join a growing number of states that have removed the term “custody” from their law. The new statute will use the term “legal decision making” instead of “legal custody.” “Joint legal custody” will be “joint legal decision making”; “sole legal custody” will change to “sole legal decision making.”
The term “physical custody” will also be relegated to the past, as will “visitation” (only relating to parents, not third parties, like grandparents). The new law will incorporate these concepts into “parenting time.” The statute defines this as: “. . .the schedule detailing when each parent has access to a child and is responsible for providing the child with food, clothing, and shelter and making routine decisions concerning the child's care”. (Routine decisions might encompass things such as the child’s bedtime, and so on, when the child is with that parent.)
Whether the child resides with both parents or one parent (as with the old “joint” and “sole” physical custody), and how much time a child spends with each parent during parenting time, will probably depend on factors similar to those discussed earlier, like the distance between the parents’ residences.
Of course, the best interests of the child will continue to be the controlling factor in a judge’s custody decision.
To learn more about the complex issues of custody and parenting time in Wyoming, consult with a knowledgeable divorce lawyer.