For some couples, divorce can be a painful process, especially when children are involved. Parents must decide how to split time with their children and how to make custody decisions together. When parents can't agree on a custody arrangement, a judge will look to a child's best interests to decide custody.
The Ohio Legislature has removed the term "custody" and instead of granting custody, Ohio courts will "allocate parental rights and responsibilities for the care of children." As part of the custody order, each parent will be assigned a parenting time schedule and visitation rights in Ohio.
One or both parents may be awarded decision-making rights over the child. A parent with decision-making rights over a child (called "sole legal custody" in other states) can decide where a child will attend school and make major medical, religious, and legal decisions on the child's behalf.
In terms of parenting time, parents can share equal time with the child or one parent may have most of the time with and responsibility for the child. The parent who primarily lives with the child is called the "residential parent." The other parent is referred to as the "noncustodial parent."
Even when one parent has sole parental rights over a child, both parents are entitled to regular visitation with their children. Ohio visitation laws specify that each parent is entitled to a least minimum visitation, unless the child's safety or well-being would be put at risk. And in cases where a parent has committed domestic abuse, a judge probably won't cut off visitation completely.
Parents with substance abuse, domestic violence, or other struggles might be awarded visits that are supervised by an agency or third-party.
A noncustodial parent's typical visitation schedule is one weeknight during the week and visits every other weekend. A court may award either parent more visitation, but not less than the minimum guideline amount.
Moreover, neither parent should prevent visits between the child and the other parent. When one parent tries to withhold visits, the parent preventing visits can face contempt of court charges for preventing visitation.
In the most extreme cases, the parent preventing visits might have their own custody rights diminished or taken away. One of the factors a judge evaluates when deciding custody is each parent's willingness to facilitate visits between the child and the other parent.
While a judge will consider the parents' desires for custody, the child's needs—not the parent's wishes—will control. A child's best interests are the most important factor in any custody decision. Judges will consider a family's overall circumstances to make a best interests determination.
A judge may consider any factor that's relevant to a child's needs. For example, the court may consider a how a child interacts each parent and any siblings. Judges don't like to break up siblings or otherwise cause fractured relationships with family members, so they prefer custody arrangements that are supportive of healthy family interactions and continuity. A judge will also look at each parent's physical and mental health, each parent's stability, and the child's ties to his or her current home and community.
The actions of the parents are also important. Courts are appreciative of parents who have demonstrated respect for past custody decisions and for the other parent's relationship with the child. Additionally, a parent who has consistently fulfilled child support obligations will be looked upon more favorably than a parent who has failed to provide support for their child.
By contrast, a parent with a history of domestic violence or abuse won't be looked on favorably and in most cases, a judge won't award shared parenting responsibilities to a parent who has committed domestic violence in the past. See Ohio Code § 3109.04 (2020).
In order for courts to grant joint custody, known as "shared parenting" in Ohio, a judge will analyze several additional factors, including how well the parents cooperate and each parent's willingness to encourage the child to maintain a strong relationship with the other parent.
There are also practical considerations, including how close the parents live to each other. The greater the distance between the parents, the more likely it will be difficult for a shared parenting arrangement to work.
In some cases, a judge may appoint a guardian ad litem to asses a child's best interests. A guardian ad litem acts as the child's voice in a custody case. A judge may also consider the guardian ad litem's recommendations regarding shared parenting.
Ideally, divorcing parents would agree on a workable custody arrangement themselves. Whether the parents agree or the court ultimately decides, child custody decisions will be based on what's best for the child. To learn more, please see Ohio Parental Rights and Shared Parenting FAQs.
A child custody order in Ohio will stay in place until it's changed or a child reaches age 18 or is emancipated. Either parent can file a request to modify custody. However, a judge won't change the terms of your custody order unless there's been a material change in circumstances and it's in a child's best interests to adjust custody.
Not every life change justifies a change to your custody award. For example, a parent's remarriage or new baby won't necessary result in a custody change. However, if a custodial parent has major medical challenges or one parent has moved overseas, a full custody award in Ohio may no longer be appropriate. Ultimately, your child's needs will govern the outcome of your case.