Maryland divorce: Custody and visitation in the child’s best interest

Maryland child custody law is guided by the overarching best interest of the child.

The overarching goal of Maryland child custody law is the creation of child custody and visitation arrangements that are in children's best interests. Sometimes divorcing parents disagree about what living situation would be in their children's best interests and then a judge decides in accordance with Maryland family law.

Often, the parents can get to agreement through negotiation. With a negotiated custody agreement, parents usually have to meet somewhere in the middle between their two positions, but at least each has input, as compared to leaving the decisions up to the judge who has no personal knowledge of the family before being assigned the divorce trial.

However, the parents' custody agreement must still be approved by the judge, so the best interests of the child must also be paramount in parental negotiation.

If the divorcing parents cannot agree on custody, the judge may order them into mediation, when a neutral third party trained in conflict resolution and negotiation tries to coach them to agreement. (Mediation is improper if there is a history of spousal abuse.)

If mediation fails, the judge will have to craft a custody and visitation arrangement in the child's best interest. First, the court may not grant custody or visitation to any parent who has abused or neglected a child and is likely to do so again (except possibly supervised visitation). Strict guidelines also apply if a parent has a murder conviction.

Maryland cases emphasize that the judge must carefully look at the unique circumstances of each child in determining what is in his or her best interest. Maryland statutes are rather unique as they do not contain a list of specific factors for the judge to consider, as those of many other states do, sometimes mandatorily.

Rather, Maryland cases have established a list of relevant factors that a judge may consider in his or her wide discretion, including:

  • Parental fitness
  • Parental adaptability
  • Child's age, gender and health
  • Child's "physical, spiritual and moral well-being"
  • Parental home environments
  • Likely influences on the child
  • Child's preference
  • And more

Two aspects of custody must be decided:

  • Physical custody or who will have the care and control of the child
  • Legal custody or who will make major life decisions for the child

Both types of custody may be awarded either solely to one parent or jointly, sometimes called shared custody. Maryland courts lay out specific factors that often impact whether a shared custody situation will work. For example, in determining whether joint legal custody would be in a child's best interest, court opinions say that most important is whether the parents can communicate effectively enough to together make important decisions for the child about matters like education, health, religion and so on.

Maryland courts also suggest factors judges may want to consider in looking at physical custody arrangements like the parent-child relationships, interruption of the child's social and educational experiences, the child's preference, how close the two parents live to one another, parental work schedules and demands, and more, depending on the family situation.

This is a brief look at the basics of Maryland custody law; anyone in the state facing divorce involving children should contact an experienced family law attorney to learn about legal rights and what to expect, as well as to set goals and make decisions about negotiation and trial.

From her office in Towson, divorce lawyer Christine Saverda Nielson of the Law Office of Christine Saverda Nielson, P.A., represents clients in family law matters in the Baltimore area and across the state of Maryland.

Keywords: Maryland, child custody, best interest, visitation, parent, divorce, judge, court, mediation, factor, physical custody, legal custody, shared custody, joint custody