One of the difficult challenges that parents face during a divorce is deciding how they’ll share time with their children and what their custody arrangement will be. Unless both parents are able to agree on what arrangement is best for their children, they will have to go to court for a custody decision.
Like most states, Oklahoma law courts decide child custody disputes on the basis of what is in the child’s best interests. (43 Okl. St. Ann. §112.) It’s always considered in a child’s best interests to have regular contact with both parents.
Although Oklahoma law specifically states that there’s no preference for joint custody over sole custody, courts often prefer to award joint custody if it looks like the parents will be able to share parenting responsibilities effectively and without significant conflict. The bottom line is that judges are supposed to award custody in the way that will create the greatest likelihood of the child having “frequent and continuing” contact with both parents. This means the court is expected to consider which parent is more likely to allow the child to have regular contact with the other parent.
There’s no preference for mothers over fathers, or vice versa, in custody decisions in Oklahoma. Oklahoma custody law includes a somewhat unusual provision stating that the court shouldn’t show a preference as to how a child is educated—in other words, whether the child goes to public or private school or is home-schooled. This means that the judge won’t prefer one parent over another as custodian because of how that parent intends to educate the child.
If one parent is awarded sole custody, the other parent will have regular visitation rights unless there’s a problem like physical or sexual abuse or substance abuse. In those situations the court may order supervised visitation or cut off visitation entirely for a period of time until the parent can show clear evidence of rehabilitation.
Courts always consider stability important for kids, especially after a traumatic event like a divorce. Judges will consider any request for a change of custody with great care, again basing their decisions on the child’s best interests.
The parent seeking a change must show the court that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the court first made the custody order, and that the change in circumstances makes an adjustment to the custody order necessary. For example, if after custody was determined, it was discovered that the parent who had primary custody rights began living with a registered sex offender, then the court would likely revisit its initial custody decision.
Second, the parent seeking a change in custody must show that the child would be “substantially better off” with the change. For example, the parent would have to show that changing custody would put the child in a significantly better school district, where special needs would be better met. Other examples of changed circumstances include a parent’s change in income or a change in residence.
A custodial parent who is deployed to military service won’t lose custody of the child because of the deployment. Courts must not make permanent changes in custody cases involving deployed parents until the parent’s deployment is over.