Splitting up with your spouse or partner is challenging, especially when minor children are involved. You have to figure out where your children will live and who will make important decisions about their lives.
When parents are married, custody issues are decided as part of a divorce, separation, or annulment. Parents who aren't married can file a child custody case in court. Here's an overview of how Nevada law deals with these issues.
There are two aspects of child custody in Nevada—legal and physical custody. Parents may share either or both types of custody.
Legal custody refers to parents' authority to make major decisions affecting their children's lives, such as health care, education, extracurricular activities, and religious upbringing.
When parents have joint legal custody, they both have the right to be involved in those decisions. But they don't necessarily have equal decision-making power in all areas. For example, one parent may get to decide where to send the child to school, while the other parent makes decisions about health care. If parents with joint legal custody can't agree on an important decision, they may return to court on equal footing to have a judge decide what's in the best interests of the child.
If the parents haven't agreed to share this decision-making authority, Nevada law still presumes that joint legal custody is best for the child if both parents have demonstrated that they want to establish a meaningful relationship with the child—or tried to do so, but the other parent frustrated those attempts.
Parents may have joint legal custody even when they don't have joint physical custody.
(Nev. Rev. Stat. § 125C.002 (2023).)
Physical custody (sometimes called "parenting time") deals with a child's time in a parent's care. In Nevada, there are three different arrangements for physical custody:
Nevada parents may always agree on how they'll handle child custody after they separate or divorce. They'll need to submit their agreement to the court, in the form of a parenting plan (along with a proposed divorce or custody decree). But judges will approve the agreement as long as it appears to be in the child's best interests—and they'll presume that's the case when the parents have agreed on joint custody."
You can find forms for divorce decrees and custody decrees on the Family Law Self-Help Center's website.
At a minimum, your agreement should include a schedule for when each parent will have the child (including on holidays, birthdays, and vacations). You should also consider covering other issues, such as how you will:
The more detailed your parenting plan, the more you'll be able to avoid or minimize disagreements in the future. You can learn more in Nolo's book on Building a Parenting Plan That Works. Also, if you qualify to file for divorce online, some of the reputable services will walk you through creating a custody agreement and parenting plan, based on your answers to a questionnaire.
If you're having trouble agreeing about custody with your child's other parent, you can always try mediation. In fact, if you haven't reached a custody agreement by the time you file for divorce or custody, the courts in some Nevada counties may require you to participate in mediation (unless it's inappropriate, such as in cases involving domestic violence or child abuse).
If you and your child's other parent aren't able to reach a custody agreement, even after mediation, a judge will have to hold a trial and decide for you. In Nevada, as in all states, judges make custody decisions based on what's in the best interests of the child. Beyond that general principle, Nevada law lays out some specific guidelines.
Along with the built-in presumption for joint legal custody, Nevada law has a strong preference for joint physical custody. If a judge doesn't award joint physical custody after either parent has asked for it, the judge has to explain why the request was denied.
However, judges may award primary custody to one parent when there's substantial evidence that:
When deciding which custody arrangement would be best for a child, judges must consider all of the relevant circumstances, including:
(Nev. Rev. Stat. § 125C.0035(4) (2023).)
Nevada law specifically says that when judges are making custody decisions, they must not give preference to either parent just because that person is the child's mother or father.
(Nev. Rev. Stat. § 125C.0035(2) (2023).)
Nevada law takes domestic violence into account in custody cases. When a parent has been accused of abuse, neglect, or an act of abduction, the judge must hold a hearing and allow both sides to present evidence.
If, after the hearing, the judge finds by "clear and convincing evidence" that an allegedly abusive parent has committed acts of domestic violence, the judge must apply a "rebuttable presumption" that giving custody to the alleged abuser is not in the child's best interests. This means that parent will probably not get custody unless there's solid evidence to overcome (rebut) the presumption of abuse.
Once a judge has found that a parent has engaged in domestic violence, the judge has to craft a visitation arrangement that protects the child and the custodial parent. For example, the judge may impose one or more visitation conditions, including:
(Nev. Rev. Stat. § 125C.0035 (2022).)
Just because you have a custody agreement or order, that doesn't mean it's set in stone. As with an initial custody order, parents may agree on changes to their custody arrangement. But here again, they'll need to submit their "stipulation and order" to the court, for a judge's review.
If you can't agree on changes, you or the other parent may file a motion (written request) to change custody or visitation.
However, a judge may modify an existing order only when:
So a major life change—like a new job, remarriage, or relocation—is a critical first step, but it isn't enough on its own to get a modification. As always, the judge must decide whether the requested modification would be best for the child.
(Nev. Rev. Stat. §§ 125C.0045 (2023); Romano v. Romano, 501 P.3d 980 (2022).)
You—and your children—will benefit if you and your child's other parent can work together to come up with a custody and parenting time agreement. You know what's best for your child, and you'll have more control over the final custody order if you can reach an agreement. You can work with a mediator if you need help.
The State of Nevada has a Self-Help Center with an overview of custody laws, as well as downloadable forms and instructions on how to use them.
If you can't agree on what's best for your child, you should consider speaking with a lawyer. The stakes in a custody battle are high, and it can be difficult to navigate court without an experienced, local lawyer on your side. Learn more about when to hire a child custody lawyer. If you can't afford to hire a lawyer, many organizations throughout Nevada offer free and low cost legal help.