Child Custody OrderThis is the next post in my series discussing the rights of unmarried parents who are no longer a couple. My previous post stressed why unmarried Virginia fathers must establish paternity. In this post I will explain the importance of obtaining a formal custody order and the process for doing so.

Unmarried couples sometimes delay obtaining a formal custody order when they have split up as they are under no obligation to obtain a court order. This is different from those who are married as such persons must deal with child custody as part of their divorce. However, not taking steps to have a custodial order issued can lead to disaster down the road. First, without a custodial arrangement in place, there will be no obligation for one parent to pay child support. Even if two parents have a private financial agreement, there is no way to immediately hold the other parent accountable should they take back their word. Other issues that can come up include one parent wishing to move with the child, if one parent becomes angry at the other and withholds access to the child, or if there is a disagreement over education or health care. While many couples believe they can co-parent without any court intervention, having an agreed upon custody arrangement on the books can protect both parents from unforeseen issues later down the road.

A parenting agreement will include a number of items. First, it will determine whether the parents will share joint custody or if one parent will have primary custody. The parenting plan will outline how much time the child will spend with each parent as well as the times for visitation. A custody agreement might also have language that states ways in which the agreement will change as the child ages, guidelines for how to settle parenting disputes, and any other pertinent information. If the parents are able to reach an agreement then it will be submitted to the court. If the judge finds that the plan is in the child’s best interest then the agreement will be signed and made part of the official record.

If two parents cannot agree on a parenting plan then a judge may order them to mediation. A mediator assigned by the court will then attempt to help the parents settle any disagreements and find a compromise. If two parents are not able to settle their differences in mediation, or through the use of their private attorneys, then a trial will be held. At a trial, both sides would present their case for their proposed custody plan and a judge would make a decision. Whenever possible it is best for two parents to come together and find an agreement without a judge’s intervention. When leaving a decision to the court it is common for both parents to walk away unhappy with the order.

If you are an unmarried parent without a formal parenting agreement filed with the court then it is best to have a formal agreement signed before problems arise. Contact our office today to speak with a child custody attorney. Our lawyers are ready to assist you.