Ohio Child Custody Laws

Learn how child custody works in Ohio, including how judges make custody decisions, and how to modify custody orders.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
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Splitting up with your spouse or partner is challenging, especially when you have minor children. You have to deal with the emotional and financial fallout of the breakup while also figuring out where your child will live and who will make important decisions about your child's upbringing. Here's an overview of how Ohio law deals with these issues.

Types of Child Custody in Ohio

Ohio, like many states, has moved away from terms like "custody" and "visitation." Instead, the state uses terms like "parental rights and responsibilities" and "parenting time." Also, some terms used in Ohio (like "residential parent") don't necessarily mean the same thing as in other states. Regardless of the language, there are two aspects to child custody:

  • Parental rights and responsibilities (called "legal custody" in many other states) refers to parents' authority to make important decisions for their children's lives (such as education, medical care, and religious upbringing).
  • Parenting time includes both where a child will live most of the time (traditionally called "physical custody") and the other parent's time with the child (traditionally called "visitation").

When One Parent Has Primary Decision-Making Responsibility

When one parent has the primary decision-making rights and responsibilities for a child, Ohio law refers to that parent as "the residential parent and the legal custodian of the child."

The child will primarily live with the sole residential parent (an arrangement similar to what's traditionally known as "full custody" or "sole custody"). But in Ohio, that doesn't necessarily mean the other parent won't have any parental rights. Even when one parent is designated as the residential parent and legal custodian, the judge may still assign some rights and responsibilities to the nonresidential parent, including the right to continuing contact with the child. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3109.04(A)(1)) (2023).)

Shared Parenting

In Ohio, "shared parenting" means that both parents will have decision-making rights, as well as the right to parenting time. It doesn't necessarily mean that they'll have an equal or nearly equal amount of time with the child, nor does it mean that they'll each have veto power over every child-related decision. The law says that they may share "all or some of the aspects of the physical and legal care" of their child.

So, for instance, one parent may have the right to decide about the child's medical treatment and where the child goes to school, while the other parent has the right to decide about the child's religious upbringing. And the child might live most nights with one parent while still spending a fair amount of time with the other parent.

When parents share parenting, each of them is referred to as the child's "residential parent and legal custodian" or the "custodial parent," regardless of where the child is staying at the time. However, the judge may designate one parent's residence as the child's home when it's necessary for receiving public assistance or enrolling the child in school. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3109.04(A)(2), (L) (2023).)

Parenting Time

Parenting time refers to the amount of time each parent has with a child. Even when the judge designates one parent as the "residential parent and legal custodian," the nonresidential parent typically has the right to parenting time. Ohio law has a built-in preference for "both parents to have frequent and continuing contact with the child," unless it wouldn't be in the child's best interests. For example, an infant might have short, frequent visits with the non-residential parent while an older child might have regular overnight stays.

Parents may work out a parenting time schedule on their own for the court to approve. If the parents can't agree, a judge will decide on a schedule for them. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3109.051 (2023).)

Shared Parenting Plans and Agreements

Either parent alone or both parents together can request shared parenting in Ohio. When you ask for shared parenting (typically as part of the paperwork when you file for divorce), you'll need to submit a written parenting plan. The plan should include a parenting time schedule and describe how the parents will make parenting decisions. If only one parent submits a plan, the judge may order the other parent to submit a plan as well. The judge will evaluate the plans and approve the one that's in the child's best interest, with modifications if necessary.

Parents can—and typically do—agree on a parenting plan and jointly submit it to the court for approval. The judge will approve their plan as long as it's in the child's best interests. But here again, the judge might ask the parents to make appropriate changes to the joint plan. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3109.04 (D), (G) (2023).)

You can download the official form for your parenting plan from the Ohio Courts' forms page for domestic relations cases.

Minimum Requirements for Parenting Plans in Ohio

A plan for shared parenting must address everything that's relevant to the child's care, including at least the following

  • living arrangements
  • child support obligations
  • medical and dental care
  • school placement, and
  • a schedule detailing when each parent will have the child for legal holidays, school holidays, and other special occasions.

(Ohio Rev. Code § 3109.04(G) (2023).)

What Else Can Go in a Parenting Plan

A more detailed parenting agreement can minimize conflict down the road. Comprehensive parenting plans typically address important issues like:

  • child care
  • transportation
  • religious upbringing
  • extracurricular activities
  • income tax dependency, and
  • restrictions on out-of-state and international travel with the child.

The Ohio Supreme Court publishes a handbook to help parents get started with a plan: Planning for Parenting Time: Ohio's Guide for Parents Living Apart.

Mediation and Parenting Coordination

If you need help working out a parenting plan, you always have the option of trying mediation in Ohio. But if you haven't reached an agreement on a plan or a specific parenting schedule by the time you file for divorce (or another custody proceeding), the judge may require that you attend mediation unless it's inappropriate–such as in cases involving domestic violence or child abuse. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3109.052 (2023).)

Also, in some Ohio counties, you may request parenting coordination services, or the judge may order you to use those services.

How Ohio Judges Make Child Custody Decisions

All decisions about parental rights and responsibilities in Ohio—such as who will be the residential parent, whether shared parenting is appropriate, and whether to approve a jointly submitted parenting plan—are based on the child's best interests. When Ohio judges are deciding what would be best for a child, they must consider all relevant factors, including:

  • the parents' wishes
  • the child's wishes (unless they aren't mature enough to have a reasoned opinion on the subject, or it wouldn't be in their best interests to take their preferences into account)
  • the child's relationship with each parent, siblings, and other significant people
  • the child's adjustment to home, school, and community
  • the mental and physical health of the parents and child
  • the likelihood that a parent will follow the court-approved parenting time
  • whether either parent has failed to make child support payments
  • whether either parent (or someone in the parent's household) has a history of child abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, or domestic violence
  • whether either parent has denied the other parent's right to parenting time, and
  • whether either parent lives or plans to move out of state.

(Ohio Rev. Code § 3109.04(F)(1) (2023).)

When deciding whether shared parenting is in the child's best interest, the judge must also consider:

  • the parents' ability to cooperate
  • the ability of each parent to encourage the child's relationship with the other parent
  • either parent's history of (or potential for) abuse or parental kidnapping
  • how close the parents live to each other, and
  • the recommendation of the guardian ad litem of the child, if the child has one.

(Ohio Rev. Code § 3109.04(F)(2) (2023).

Changing Parental Rights or Parenting Time in Ohio

Once a judge has issued a parenting decree, that doesn't necessarily mean that the current parenting arrangements are set in stone. Either parent may file a motion for Change of Parental Rights and Responsibilities or Parenting Time.

However, a judge may modify an existing order only when:

  • the child or parents' circumstances have changed, and
  • a modification is necessary to serve the child's best interest.

A major life change alone, like a new job or spouse, isn't enough to get a modification. As always, the judge must decide whether the requested modification would be best for the child.

As a general rule, there shouldn't be a change in which parent is designated as the residential parent, unless a modification is in the child's best interests and one of the following is true:

  • both parents agree to switch the residential parent designation
  • the child, with the residential parent's consent, has been integrated into the family of the other parent, or
  • the advantages for the child of changing residential parents outweigh the disadvantages.

When one or both parents has requested a modification, the judge may:

  • approve a new shared parenting plan instead of having one parent as the primary residential parent
  • change the specifics of an existing shared parenting plan, or
  • end the current shared parenting arrangement and allocate parental rights and responsibilities anew.

If both parents agree on how to change the specifics of their shared parenting plan, the judge will generally approve their modified plan as long as it's in the child's best interests. (Ohio Rev. Code § 3109.04(E) (2023).)

Getting Help With Parental Rights and Parenting Time in Ohio

The best way to save yourself a lot of time, money, and grief is to work with your child's other parent and agree on a parenting plan. If you need help reaching an agreement, you can work with a parenting coordinator or mediator.

You can also find legal and community resources through Ohio Legal Help and your county court.

But if you can't agree on what's best for your child or need help enforcing an existing court order, you should consider speaking with a lawyer. The stakes in a court battle over parental rights and parenting time are high, and it can be difficult for laypeople to navigate all the rules and procedures for a disputed case involving parental rights and responsibilities. You'll want an experienced, local family attorney on your side.

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