When Maryland couples find themselves in conflict leading to divorce, one of the issues that can arise is what happens to the children under their care.
Most commonly, custody disputes occur following a divorce when both parents cannot agree on the child’s primary care, how often, and for how long. Statistics show mothers are awarded custody almost twice as usually as fathers, but Maryland law does not permit bias.
Both parents must be considered equally. However, fathers need to seek legal assistance to protect their parental rights when coming to a child custody agreement to ensure they are treated fairly and receive the custody and visitation they deserve.
Here is an overview of Maryland’s paternity and child custody laws and how the custody arrangement process typically works.
How Custody Is Determined: Best Interest
In Maryland, the primary guiding factor behind who receives custody is what is in the child’s best interest. Even if the parents created their custody agreement prior to divorce or separation, a court may rule differently if it finds an alternative arrangement that it believes is in the child’s best interest. Multiple factors are considered here, including:
- Material opportunity – This is an evaluation of resources. Is one parent making significantly more than the other and thus able to supply the child with what they need to thrive?
- Family connectedness – Is one parent planning to move away if they receive custody, breaking the child off from contact with their aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other families? A parent who plans to nurture these connections has a better chance of receiving custody.
- Physical and mental fitness – Is one parent physically or mentally unwell in such a manner that their care of the child would be impacted? This could include demonstrating issues of alcoholism, abuse, and more. The court may ask witnesses, including other children, whether such behavior occurs.
- Primary responsibility – Is one parent already the primary caregiver who takes charge of daily tasks such as dropping off and picking up from school, making dinner, handling doctor appointments, and so on? Does the child primarily turn to one parent when asking for help?
- Child preference – Courts in Maryland will consider the child’s preferences when determining custody. Those over 16 will always be heard, but children as young as five may be interviewed and their testimony acted upon. The court will determine whether the child can tell fact from fiction, which may require the interview to be conducted away from the parents.
Types of Custody That May Be Awarded
Once the court has made a decision, it can award custody structured in various ways. These include:
- Joint legal custody – Parents work together to make decisions for the child, such as where to go to school, but they may not have similar requirements for physical presence.
- Shared physical custody – The child has two homes and spends a minimum of 35% of their time at each one.
- Split custody – Though rare, a court may award custody of multiple children such that one parent gains custody of some children and the other parent is responsible for the remaining children.
- Pendente lite – Temporary custody. This type of custody is awarded only while waiting on the court hearing to create a long-term plan.
Courts may award legal or physical custody shared jointly or assign these individually (e.g., a parent may have legal custody but not physical custody).
One area where paternal rights suffer in Maryland is when partners are unmarried. In cases of unmarried parents, the mother is the de facto custodian. Fathers will need to prove their paternity before the court, which can require a DNA test, signing an affidavit attesting that the child is his, or marrying the mother and acknowledging that he is the father.
Situations outside the standard one-man, one-woman marriage can become fraught with risk for the male parent, who must work harder to uphold his custody rights. This is why seeking legal help during separation or divorce is critical for the paternal party.
Seek Legal Assistance for Paternity and Custody
If you are a father concerned about how the court is or will be treating you regarding custody arrangements, seek legal counsel as soon as possible. You deserve and have the right to appropriate custody of your child.