Child custody is usually the crucial issue in most divorce cases. In determining the custody of minor children, the court is guided by one standard - the best interest of the child. The court may award “joint legal custody” where both parents have a role in making decisions for the child, or “sole legal custody” where one parent is ultimately responsible for making decisions in the child's best interest. Custody will be awarded to the parent who is most adaptable to the task of caring for the child, and who is able to control and direct the child. Further, custody may be changed if there is a substantial change in circumstances after the date of the divorce.
Factors considered by the court when awarding custody may include the age of the parent and child, the physical and mental condition of each parent and child, the relationship existing between each parent and each child, the needs of the child, the role played by each parent in the upbringing and caring for the child, the home where the child will live and the child's wishes if the child is of sufficient age, intelligence, and maturity to make such a decision.
Another important factor to the court in establishing most custody arrangements is which parent will be the most likely to see to it that the non-custodial parent remains a strong part of the child or children's lives. Often the court will fashion living arrangements such that the child, at least during the school year, will reside primarily with one parent. The other parent will receive visitation with the child. Visitation rights will normally be set by the court if the parents cannot voluntarily agree upon satisfactory arrangements.
Normally the party receiving visitation will be called upon to contribute to the support of the minor child. This could be an obligation of the mother, the father, or both, if a third person has custody of the child. The court is guided by the needs of the child and the ability of the supporting parent or parents to pay. The use of the state child support guidelines provides an amount of child support that is presumed to be correct, but the court may deviate from these guidelines in appropriate circumstances. The award is subject to change so long as the obligation to support remains. The child support amount may be increased or decreased if a material change occurs in the circumstances of either or both of the parents or of the child. Non-custodial parents who have their children for more than 90 days per year for visitation have their child support calculated using a different formula that is likely to make the support lower. The court may also require a party to maintain an existing life insurance policy to provide financial security for a child in the event that the parent obligated to pay child support dies.