Virginia custody laws dictate the adults that are financially and directly responsible for a child’s well-being. Though at birth the child’s parents are the default guardians, in case the parents are unable to care for the child for whatever reason later in life, or if the parents separate, the pre-established Virginia child custody laws determine the specifics of child custody.
Through the adoption of the Uniform Child Custody Act, child custody laws have many core similarities across states, and each state is required to recognize the custody laws of other states, to some extent. Most states, including Virginia, have adopted this policy. This helps with the enforcement of child custody practices across state lines.
However, some small but significant differences exist in different state child custody laws. And it is important to be aware of these differences for the sake of one of our most vulnerable populations: children.
Read on for a quick breakdown of Virginia custody laws by our family lawyers at Manassas Law Group.
Determining Custody in Virginia
Under Virginia custody laws, Juvenile and Domestic Relations court establishes custody. Once the court establishes a child custody order, Virginia custody laws do not allow it to be changed unless there is a material change in circumstances since the order was handed down. For instance, if one parent holds physical custody of the child but months afterward is arrested on drug charges, the state of Virginia may choose to revisit the custody order.
Where to File for Child Custody in Virginia
When filing for child custody, the advocate should file the petition in whichever county the child last lived in for a consecutive six months. Even if you do not file in the appropriate county, your case can still be heard. However, if the opposing party objects, the judge will probably opt to transfer the case to the appropriate county.
Parenting Classes Before Child Custody Hearings in Virginia
The state of Virginia requires all parties in a contested child custody case to attend a four-hour educational parenting class. For this reason, at the initial hearing, the judge will likely establish a temporary visitation or custody order. This will also establish a future hearing in several months. If you choose not to complete the required parenting class within the scheduled time frame, the judge is unlikely to grant you custody of the child.
Factors that Determine Child Custody in Virginia
Virginia custody laws require judges to consider multiple factors when determining custody of a child, including the:
- Age and mental condition of the child
- Mental condition and age of each parent
- Relationship between each parent and the child
- Needs of the child
- Best interests of the child
- Willingness of each parent to actively support the child’s contact with the other parent
- Parent’s willingness to keep a close relationship with the child
- Willingness of each parent to cooperate and resolve disputes
- If any, history of family abuse.
Factors That Can Negatively Affect Your Child Custody Case
There are also several factors that may hurt one party’s chances of obtaining custody under Virginia custody laws. These by no means indicate a complete termination of parental rights. Very rarely will a court order complete termination of one party’s parental rights. This happens only in extreme cases.
Some of the factors that may negatively influence one party’s chances of getting custody under Virginia custody laws are:
- Alcohol abuse
- Illegal drug use
- Prescription drug abuse
- Adultery/living with but not married to an opposite-sex roommate
- Criminal convictions
- Founded Child Protective Services complaints
- Civil commitment and/or mental health hospitalizations
- Physical or mental impairments that would affect your ability to care for a child.
Parent’s Role in Child Custody
The most important factor, though, is each parent’s relationship with the child. Even if you have a criminal record, if you display a desire for a relationship with your child and have previously established a healthy relationship with them, the judge will not dismiss that simply due to your record.
Child’s Role in Child Custody
The judge will also, occasionally, take into account the desires of the child. Obviously, a reasonable judge will typically not ask a child under the age of 7 what they want. Even if so, the child’s answer carries little weight in the ultimate decision.
Judges may ask children between the ages of 7 and 13 what they want. Their preference may bear more weight depending on the age and maturity of the child. For example, a judge may ask a 12-year-old what he wants, and his answer may sway the decision of the judge. A 7-year-old’s wants, even if the judge asks, will likely not carry much weight with the court.
Children older than 14 must be asked what they want under Virginia custody laws. Their answer usually carries great weight, so long as it is reasonable.
Child Custody, Visitation, and Child Support in Virginia
Virginia custody laws vary between three types of custodianship and guardianship: parental custody, visitation rights, and financial responsibility, commonly known as “child support”, or any combination thereof.
What is Custody in Virginia?
Custody is the care, control, and maintenance of a child. Virginia custody laws describe three types of custody:
- Joint legal custody is when both parents retain joint responsibility and deciding power for the child in question, even though the child may live primarily with one parent. Legal custody and physical custody are different. For instance, if a child’s parents have joint legal custody of him, even though he lives primarily with his mother, his father retains equal parental rights to his mother. This has been the most popular custody arrangement in Virginia and many other states. However, in recent years, judges have begun to favor joint physical custody.
- Joint physical custody is true 50/50 custody. The child lives with their mother and father equal amounts of time. And the parents will also have equal authority regarding decision-making. For example, if a child lives one week with his mother and one week with his father, his parents have joint physical custody.
- Sole custody gives one parent all the deciding power and authority regarding the child. The vast majority of the time, the child will live full-time with the parent who retains sole custody, although the other parent will likely be awarded visitation.
What is Parental Visitation in Virginia?
Virginia custody laws dictate that judges must assure regular and frequent contact of the child with both parents. For this reason, even if the judge awards one parent physical custody or even legal custody of the child, the judge will almost always grant visitation, or allot time for the non-custodial parent to spend with the child.
The two parties should work towards creating \a reasonable visitation schedule among themselves: one that allows the child to spend the maximum amount of time with both parents. However, if the two parties cannot come to an agreement, a court could give visitation at mandated times. This can include general visitation days as well as holidays, school breaks, and vacations. The court will take into account distance the non-custodial parent lives from the child, and how much contact this parent has had with the child in the past.
Above everything else, judges make decisions in the best interest of the child. Although rare, exceptions arise when the judge considers the non-custodial parent’s contact with the child to be not in the best interest of the child. This occurs in instances such as cases of abuse. In this case, the non-custodial parent is not entitled to see or interact with the child. Virginia custody laws will not mandate visitation in this case.
If parental rights have not been terminated but there are still concerns about the well-being of the child while they are in the care of the non-custodial parent, a judge could mandate that visitation be supervised by DSS or some other responsible adult.
For these reasons and many others, an experienced Virginia family and custody attorney will help to ensure the judgment aligns with the best interests of the child.
What is Child Support in Virginia?
The state of Virginia expects both parents to support their children financially. Virginia custody laws assume the parent who has majority physical custody is naturally providing the majority of financial support.
Therefore, Virginia custody laws often require the non-custodial parent to pay some form of support to the custodial parent to make up for this imbalance. Child support is not usually an issue with joint physical custody. But, it is often a factor in joint legal custody or sole custody situations.
Virginia calculates child support based on the gross incomes of both parents. The court uses the Virginia Child Support Guidelines to determine the amount of support the paying parent is obligated to provide.
For example, the father’s income comprises 65% of total income. Therefore, the father will be required to pay 65% of the calculated amount necessary to support the child under Virginia custody laws.