When divorcing parents come into court for a decision on parenting arrangements, judges in Maine base their decisions on the best interests of the child. While a judge will assess every situation individually, Maine law recognizes that it’s generally good for children to have frequent contact with both parents and to have both parents participate in decision-making after divorce. Neither parent begins with any greater right to custody than the other. Judges making custody decisions can consider any factor relevant to parenting, and are guided by some factors that are set out in the state’s laws—generally falling into the following basic categories:
The safety and well-being of a child is a court’s primary concern, and although the law in Maine favors shared parental responsibility, the court won’t order shared custody if it would be detrimental to the child. Evidence of domestic violence, child abuse, or a sexual offense may lead a judge to deny a parent contact with a child or order supervised contact. Also, if a parent lives with someone who has committed certain types of crimes, particularly sexual offenses, a judge may require supervision of any contact with that person, or prohibit overnight stays in the household.
The court also evaluates the strength of the relationship between the child and each parent, the motivation of each parent, and the ability of each parent to offer the child love and guidance. A judge who believes that a child is mature enough to make a meaningful choice may allow the child to state a preference as to custody.
Courts generally favor arrangements that maintain continuity and stability, including those that allow a child to stay in the same school and maintain important relationships. A court will consider how long the child has been in the current living arrangement as well as how long it’s likely to continue into the future, and whether an alternate arrangement might be more stable.
While judges are not permitted to apply an automatic preference for either parent due to the parent’s gender or the age or gender of the child, a judge may consider a child’s age in assessing developmental needs. If a child is less than a year old and is still breast-feeding, the court will factor that into the custody decision.
Unless there is a compelling reason against it, courts in Maine expect parents to allow children frequent contact with the other parent, and place a strong emphasis on the ability and willingness of each parent to encourage a positive relationship between the child and the other parent. The court will assess each parent’s ability to communicate and cooperate with the other parent regarding child care.
Parents with a poor co-parenting history may improve their chances of increasing their parental time and responsibility by demonstrating a willingness to learn to cooperate in the future. A court may also consider whether or not the parents have a method for resolving disputes that is likely to reduce the need for court intervention. The court is likely to consider a parent who has provided false evidence of domestic violence in an effort to interfere with the other parent’s relationship with the child as unable to cooperate with the other parent.
The term “custody” includes both legal custody, which refers to making major decisions concerning a child’s health, education, or general welfare; and physical custody, which refers to the child’s primary physical residence with a parent. Parents have the opportunity to develop their own arrangements with respect to both legal and physical custody, and if they’re not able to reach an agreement, the law in Maine requires them to attend mediation before they can schedule a contested court procedure. The court may appoint a parenting coordinator to assist the parents in developing a parenting plan.
When parents agree to share parental rights and responsibilities, a Maine court will order joint legal custody unless there is substantial evidence that it would not be in a child’s best interests. A court may also allocate specific responsibilities between the parents, or may grant sole parental rights and responsibilities—sole legal custody—to one parent.
A judge who orders joint legal custody may also order joint physical custody, or may order that the child live primarily with one parent. Where one parent has sole physical custody, the other will be entitled to regularly scheduled contact with the child, unless the court determines that it would be contrary to the child’s best interests. Shared physical custody does not necessarily mean a 50/50 time-share, and many different residential plans may be appropriate.