Custody and Placement Basics

When going through a divorce, legal separation, or paternity case, many individuals are getting their first real experience in a courtroom. In such cases where children are involved, the court will make a ruling as to "Legal Custody" and "Physical Placement." This article will briefly address these issues, as well as some common misconceptions. Many people have a basic understanding of custody and placement through T.V. shows, movies, and other media, and assume 'custody' refers to who gets to 'keep' the children. In Wisconsin, custody and placement are actually two related but separate issues.

Legal Custody refers to which parent has the legal right to make major decisions on behalf of the child. These major decisions can include, but are not limited to, decisions regarding marriage, entering military service, obtaining a driver's license, choosing a school and religion, and authorizing nonemergency medical care. Physical Placement, in contrast, refers to which parent has the child physically placed with him or her on a day-to-day basis. Included in this is the ability to make routine daily decisions regarding the child's care. A basic example of this would be what to feed a child for dinner or what clothes they will wear in a given day.

Perhaps surprisingly, a parent can be awarded periods of physical placement without being awarded legal custody. Similarly, a parent can be awarded legal custody without being awarded periods of physical placement. For example, a child can live with Mom 100% of the time, while Dad still has a say in where the child will go to school. A child can also live with each parent 50% of the time, while Mom gets to make all decisions regarding schooling.

Legal Custody can either be sole (awarded only to one parent) or joint (awarded equally to both parents). Generally speaking, joint custody is presumed to be in the child's best interest unless there is some sort of abuse, neglect, or incapacity on the part of one parent. A parent can also be awarded impasse authority on a given issue, meaning they get to override the other parent in the event of a disagreement. For example, the parents might have joint custody with Mom having impasse authority in the choice of religion. In such a case, if Mom wants the child to be raised Christian and Dad wants the child to be raised Jewish, and the parties can't agree on a compromise, then Mom's decision would control.

Placement decisions are made by the court after considering a number of factors. Some of the most important factors include:

  1. The wishes of the parties and the child.
  2. The amount and quality of time each parent has spent with the child in the past.
  3. The child's adjustment to the home, school, religion, and community.
  4. The availability of child care.
  5. Whether the mental or physical health of a party or a child negatively affects the child's well-being.
  6. Whether either party has or had a significant problem with alcohol or drug abuse.

This list is not exhaustive, and there are many other factors that courts take into consideration when making a placement decision. It is important to consider all such factors, and the facts in each individual case, when considering an appropriate placement schedule.

Disputes involving custody and placement can be challenging and emotionally difficult. A court will ultimately make a determination based on what it believes is in the best interest of the child. If you have concerns about the proper arrangement for custody or placement, it is best to consult with an attorney who can fight for the interests of yourself and your children. The experienced attorneys at Hildebrand Law Firm LLC are ready and willing to assist you in developing a custody and placement plan that works for you.