A judge making custody decisions in a divorce case in Maryland considers the best interests of the children to be the paramount concern. Neither parent begins with any greater right to custody than the other parent, and judges have great discretion in determining custody arrangements. A judge can consider anything that is relevant to parenting—the law in Maryland doesn’t provide a specific list of factors that the judge must consider, but allows the judge to take into account the totality of the circumstances in each parent’s home and how such circumstances may affect a child.
A judge will consider the preferences of the parents and any agreements between them, and will also consider each parent’s character, reputation, and ability to provide care, including the ability to provide material opportunities that may impact a child’s future. Other factors include the child’s age, health, and sex; where the parents each live; what kind of opportunities exist for visitation; and whether a parent has voluntarily abandoned a child. Courts generally favor arrangements that provide stability and maintain continuity, including those that foster the continuation of existing natural family relationships—like those with extended family—and minimize the time a child is separated from either parent. A judge may permit a child to state a preference if the child is old enough to make an intelligent choice. The law also requires a court to consider any evidence of domestic abuse; a court may deny custody and visitation or allow only supervised visitation if necessary to ensure a child’s physical, emotional or psychological safety.
Legal custody refers to a parent’s authority to participate in significant or long-term decisions regarding a child’s health, education, religious upbringing, and general welfare. Physical custody refers to the time that a child is residing with or is under the care and supervision a parent. A court awarding joint legal custody will not necessarily also award joint physical custody, nor does joint physical custody necessarily require an equal division of time between parents. Many different parenting schedules may be appropriate depending on the individual circumstances of a case. A court may also grant visitation to a grandparent if this is in a child’s best interests.
A judge considering an award of joint custody will weigh the factors referred to above, and will also look closely at the established relationships between the child and each parent, as well as the ability of the parents to communicate with each other and to make shared decisions affecting the child’s welfare. A court will also consider whether the parents live in close proximity to each other, and any potential school or social disruptions a child might experience in moving between the homes. Other factors include the ages and number of other children in each home; the demands of the parents’ employment; and the potential impact of joint custody on either parent’s financial status.