Child custody is a term that was once used in Arizona to describe a parent’s decision-making authority for and visitation with their children. The term now is legally obsolete. Arizona has replaced the term child custody with its two component parts: legal decision-making and parenting time. Legal decision-making refers to the parents ability to make non-emergency medical, educational, religious, and personal care decisions for the children. Parenting time (visitation) is the schedule established for each parent to have the children in their care. It is the declared public policy of the state of Arizona that it is in a child’s best interest:

  1. To have substantial, frequent, meaningful and continuing parenting time with both parents and
  2. To have both parents participate in decision-making about the child.

Joint legal decision-making requires both parents to agree about medical providers and medical decisions, which school the children attend, and any special religious education. If the parents are unable to agree on any of these issues, mediation is required and court intervention might be necessary. In limited circumstances, one parent may be awarded sole legal decision-making authority wherein that parent makes all of the decisions without the involvement of the other parent.

Parenting Plan for Child Custody in Arizona

Parenting time must be outlined in a parenting plan that defines day to day schedule that the children will follow, how school vacations and holidays are divided, telephone access, and how parenting disputes are resolved.

Arizona law provides that parenting time with each parent is to be maximized to the greatest extent possible.

In essence, it is presumed that the parties will have approximately equal parenting time with the children baring an agreement otherwise or circumstances which dictate that it is in the best interest of the child to be with one parent more than the other. The most common equal parenting-time schedules are the “5-2-2-5” schedule, “2-2-3” schedule, and the “week-on/week-off” schedule. The schedule that is most appropriate is dependent on the age of the children.

What is Parenting Time, and How is it Determined?

In Arizona, what was once historically known as “Physical Custody” of children is now referred to as “Parenting Time.” Parenting time refers to the time during which the parent is able to physically be with his/her children. Like all issues related to children, it is the best interests of the child that guide the court’s determination. Typically, unless the parties agree to otherwise and assuming both are fit and able, the court will award a parenting time schedule that divides time between the parents approximately equally. However, if one’s parenting ability is compromised by substance abuse or health issues, or if a parent has been a perpetrator of domestic violence, a judge is unlikely to award that parent significant time with the children, opting instead to grant limited, more occasional access. In the most extreme cases, a court can order a parent have only parenting time supervised by a third party whose role is to protect the children. Each case is unique, and parenting time will depend on a wide range of factors.

What is the “Best Interests of the Child” Standard?

The Best Interests of the Child is the generally-applicable standard by which a judge will evaluate decisions involving children. It involves analysis of several factors that are relevant to a child’s physical and emotional development and well-being, including but not limited to: the past, present, and future relationship between the parent and child; the interaction and interrelationship of the child with the child’s parents or siblings; the child’s adjustment to home, school, and community; if the child is of suitable age and maturity, the wishes of the child; the mental and physical health of all individuals involved; and which parent is more likely to allow the child frequent, meaningful and continuing contact with the other parent.

What are Some Common Parenting Time Arrangements?

Courts typically will approve any parenting schedule which both parents agree is in their children’s best interest. Even if you work well with your former spouse, a specific schedule in writing is required by law. That way, you each will have the same expectations of when you will be with the children. Often, cooperating parents will have a parenting arrangement structured in their parenting plan but will use common sense to adjust the schedule from time to time. Since each family is unique, parents need to determine which schedule works best for them and their children. This may change as the children get older or due to the natural evolution of the separate households. Arizona has adopted Model Parenting Plans which are often helpful. Some common arrangements include the following: the “5-5-2-2” plan which alternates weekends and gives one parent every Monday and Tuesday overnight and the other parent every Wednesday and Thursday overnight. This is an equal parenting time schedule; the “2-2-3-2-2-3” plan which alternates weekends and gives one parent Monday and Tuesday overnights one week and that same parent Wednesday and Thursday overnights the second week. This is also an equal parenting time schedule; and the “One week on/ one week off” plan, which often includes a mid-week dinner visit. This is another equal parenting time arrangement. Most parenting plans will also include: dividing school vacations and recesses; alternating major holidays; reasonable telephone/Facetime/Skype access; and vacation time.

What is the Difference between Sole versus Joint Legal Decision-Making? How does it Differ from “Legal Custody”

In Arizona, what was once commonly known as “Legal Custody” is now referred to as “Legal Decision-Making.” Sole legal decision-making gives one parent the right and responsibility to make all major, non-emergency legal decisions including education, health care, religious training and personal care decisions. Technically, the parent is not required to discuss or consult with the other parent. However, even if a parent has sole legal decision-making, it is always best to discuss and obtain the input of the other parent if possible. Joint legal decision-making means both parents share decision making and neither parent’s rights nor responsibilities are superior. In some cases, although the parties may have Joint legal decision-making, the Court order may grant one party final control over specific issues in the event of a disagreement.