Who gets custody of minor children? - The presumption is that parents will share both legal and physical custody of their minor children.  This premise can be rebutted by proving such an arrangement is contrary to the minor children’s “best interests.”  Modern custody arrangements don't really appear to have changed much in the past 30 years.  The language has changed the practical results look very much the same.

How does it work in practice? - In most, although not all, the children live with their mother and spend every other weekend and alternating holidays with their father.  If you are a father seeking custody, it is not simply a matter of "working a little harder" as a St. Louis based law firm advertizes on the radio.  A man can try as hard as he likes, spend enormous sums of money, but it won't change the facts or the law.  Although written in a gender neutral fashion, the different roles men and women assume within a marriage today simply predisposes most mothers toward an advantage in winning residential custody* of the children.  This also means that the mother is likely to win a child support order directing the father to pay, even when the mother earns a greater income.

Legal Custody is parental authority involving decisions affecting the children’s well-being, education, activities, medical care, etc.  A parent with legal custody has a right to participation and input regarding such critical issues, although generally not a “veto” power.  When parents with joint legal custody cannot agree on such matters, courts require they first resort to “alternative dispute resolution,” typically mediation, before returning to court.

Physical Custody is parental authority over the actual physical body of the child.  This means that when a child is with a parent who has physical custody, that parent has the right to determine what is best for that child from moment to moment.  This differs from visitation where a parent spends time with the child but must get permission from the custodial parent for all activities.

Questions of Custody and Parenting Time are ultimately subject to court approval.  Although courts usually will consent to any arrangement made by parents, it is not without bounds.  Courts are obligated to closely review agreements and ensure they are in the children's "best interests."

What are "best interests?" - Best interests are a very amorphous and somewhat misleading term. Misleading because the "best interests" are limited by parents' fundamental liberty interest in rearing their own children.  While I would not, some might argue it would be in children's best interest that they be raised by the extremely wealthy, or a progressive Hollywood actress, or even the State, that is still not the policy in any of the 50 United States.  Unless both parents are completely "unfit" to parent children, then the children's best interests are limited to what may be provided by their parents.

* Residential custody is no longer technically used in family court proceedings, but regardless of the name, a rose is a rose and a pig a pig.

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