The following factors help a judge determine what is in the best interests of a child: the child’s school, community, religious, or other activities, the availability of both parents to care for the child, the developmental needs of the child, and the child’s emotional bond with each parent. The judge may also look at each parent’s parenting skills, the shared interests between the child and parents, the distance between the parents’ homes, and the preference of the child. Younger children may have a different parenting schedule than older children, but the court will also look at the parent-time schedule of siblings and whether the younger child is nursing.
Utah courts encourage separated or divorced parents to agree on a parenting schedule that is in the best interests of their child. Schedules should include where the child will live and which parent the child will be with during weekends, school vacations, and holidays. Parents may decide that the child will live at each parent’s house for one week at a time, or with one parent every other weekend, or any other schedule that they think will work for the family. They may also decide whether the other parent will have visitation during the week, and who will transport the child to and from each visit. A parenting plan should also address special occasions such as birthdays, Father’s Day, and Mother’s Day. And, even though it is not required by the court, parents may decide how they will share costs such as medical expenses, school supplies, and expenses for extracurricular activities.
If parents are unable to agree on a parenting schedule, the court will order a schedule that it believes is in the child’s best interests. This means the court will look at various factors to determine what is best for the child’s health, safety, and well being. Generally, the parent with whom the child lives for the majority of the time will have primary custody. The other parent is the noncustodial parent. The noncustodial parent will still be able to make decisions for the child together with the primary parent such as where the child will go to school, what activities the child will participate in, and what doctor the child will see. (This decision-making authority is called legal custody, while having the child live with a parent is called physical custody.) The court then uses advisory guidelines set by law to schedule the minimum visitation time that the noncustodial parent will have with the child–but a judge may order more or less time for that parent depending on the circumstances.
Factors that may have a negative impact on custody and visitation include allegations of child abuse, inability to financially provide for the child, incarceration of a parent, or a parent’s lack of involvement in the child’s life. Potential endangerment of the child and a pattern of missing or canceling visitation time may also have a negative effect.
Once the court makes a custody order, it generally cannot be changed unless the parents agree or there has been a change in circumstances–for example, the child needs to attend a different school, or one parent’s work schedule has changed significantly in a way that affects the parent’s ability to care for the child.