In Florida, divorcing or separating parents must resolve their child custody disputes either on their own using a mediator or at a trial with a judge. In either case, a judge will evaluate any custody arrangement to ensure that it's in a child's best interests.
Florida custody laws recognize that children generally benefit from maintaining frequent contact with both parents. Neither parent begins with an advantage in a custody case and mothers and fathers have equal rights to custody of their children.
This article provides an overview of how judges decide custody in Florida and what factors impact a child's best interests. If after reading this article you have more specific questions, contact a local family law attorney for advice.
As part of a Florida custody case, a judge must decide both time sharing (parenting time or visitation) and parental responsibility (decision-making authority) over a child.
"Time sharing" refers to a parent's time with the child. When a judge determines a time sharing child custody schedule in Florida, he or she will establish the parents' visitation and custody schedule with the child. Parents can have roughly equal time sharing in Florida.
In other states, this schedule might be called "joint custody". Alternatively, a judge may award one parent far more time sharing than the other – sometimes called "sole custody" or "majority time sharing". Parents may lose time sharing or visitation rights if there's evidence of domestic violence, child abuse, abandonment, or neglect. See Fla. Stat. § 61.125 (2020.) It's also possible for a judge to order supervised time sharing if a child's safety is at issue.
"Parental responsibility" is each parent's right to make major medical, educational, religious, or legal decisions on the child's behalf. Florida custody laws favor shared parental responsibility. However, a judge may award one parent sole decision-making power over the child if joint parental responsibility would be detrimental to the child's well-being.
Even when parents share parenting time and parental responsibilities one parent will be designated the "primary parent" or "custodial parent" and the other parent is the "secondary parent" or "noncustodial parent." The custodial parent in Florida is usually the parent who has more parenting time with the child. This parent has the final say on matters involving the child when the couple can't agree.
A child's best interests are central to any child custody decision in Florida. Judges expect parents to put the needs of their children first, before their own. A court will consider the extent to which each parent has demonstrated an ability and desire to meet a child's developmental needs and be involved in the child's life. Specifically, the following factors are relevant to a child's best interests in Florida:
Florida's custody laws require a judge to assess each parent's moral fitness of a parent when determining the best interests of a child. "Moral fitness" generally refers to circumstances that might affect a child's moral and ethical development—for example, substance abuse, frequent casual relationships with multiple partners, verbal abuse, violence, or illegal behavior.
Whether or not a court might consider the behavior of an adulterous parent during the marriage would depend upon whether such behavior had a significant negative impact upon the child.
Florida law places a strong emphasis on the ability of each parent to encourage a positive relationship between the child and the other parent. A judge will assess each parent's ability and willingness to honor the time-sharing schedule, and to make reasonable adjustments without resorting to court intervention. A judge will also consider each parent's ability to communicate with the other parent, to keep the other parent informed of the child's activities and other issues, and to adopt a unified front regarding major issues.
With cooperation in mind, a parent could lose custody or parenting time if he or she provides false evidence of domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, child abandonment, or child neglect against the other parent in a custody case. Parents are expected to protect a child from the stress of divorce, including refraining from making disparaging comments about the other parent in front of the child
Florida law requires parents who each parent to submit a proposed parenting plan outlining time sharing and parental responsibilities. If you and your spouse reach a settlement agreement on custody, you can submit a single parenting plan to the court for approval.
In order for a plan to be approved by the court, it must include, at a minimum, details of the following:
Both parents must follow the terms of a custody order until the order is changed or the youngest child covered by the order reaches 18. Most people's lives change rather drastically in the years following a divorce. If there's been a material change in circumstances or several years have passed since your custody order was issued, it may be time to adjust the custody order.
The parent filing a custody modification request has the burden of proving that a child's best interests warrant a change in custody. For example, one parent's remarriage or move to a neighboring state is probably not enough to justify a change in time-sharing. However, if a child's grades are slipping and there's reasonable evidence of abuse at home, a judge will likely adjust the custody order. The Florida Courts website has a "Family Law Section" with more information on establishing, enforcing and modifying custody orders in Florida.