What You Need to Know About Child Custody

Child custody can be an emotional matter even when both parties mostly agree about the details. After all, nothing is more important to you as a parent than the safety and comfort of your child. At Cabanillas & Associates, we meet with people in transition every day and can help you to reach the best agreement for your family.

Below, we share the child custody questions we receive most often from parents as well as some frequently used phrases you should be familiar with before you meet with your attorney or go to family court. Don’t forget that we offer consultations at each of our eight office locations and you can book yours by clicking here or by calling 1-800-LA FIRMA (1-800-523-4762). All consultations are free.

Frequently Asked Questions


Are there different child custody laws in different states?

Yes, each state has its own set of laws regarding child custody. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with your state’s laws and to speak to a qualified legal professional about the specifics of your situation.  

My ex and I get along great! Do we really need to go to court to make it official?

No. If you and your ex have come to an agreement about the terms of your child custody agreement, it is not necessary that you go to court. However, it is highly advised that you do speak to a family law attorney to have the paperwork drawn up, signed, and filed with the courts.

Does an unmarried mother need to file for custody?

The answer to this questions depends on which state you reside in. Read up on your state’s child custody laws or speak to a family law attorney to determine whether your state requires it or not.

My name is not on the birth certificate but I know the baby is mine and I want to file for custody. Is this possible?

Again, state laws vary so it’s important to check your state’s laws. In most states, it is possible after the man has established paternity with the court system through a form called the Acknowledgement of Paternity; this important paperwork must be signed by the baby’s mother and the father in front of a notary public (so don’t forget to bring your photo identification!) Once your paternity has been established, you have the right to go to the court to decide access and custody.

How do the courts determine who gets custody?

Generally, the factors the courts use to determine child custody include the parents’ wishes and ability to provide for the child, the current child custody arrangement, and the child’s existing relationship with each parent. The judge will always try to rule in the best interest of the child.

Does mediation really help to resolve child custody disputes and what does “mediation” mean anyway?

Sometimes agreement is difficult to come by in child custody disputes and in these cases it is often useful for both parties to enter mediation. A qualified mediator serves as a neutral third-party to help the parents reach compromise on contentious issues such as schedule and rules for the child (or children). Agreements reached in mediation are confidential but usually non-binding.

If agreement cannot be reached in mediation, arbitration can be helpful to parents who are having trouble communicating with one another. The arbitration process differs from the mediation process in that it is a more structured and formal process, the arbitrator functions as a judge, and the decision is binding in court.

Should I plan to handle my international child custody case differently?

If you are contending with an international child custody case, you should be in touch with an attorney who has experience working in international child custody experience.

Generally, concerns of parental abduction will be addressed in an initial custody determination. If concerns are not addressed then, your attorney can assist you in filing a petition under the Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act (UCAPA). The act provides States with a valuable tool for deterring both domestic and international child abductions by parents and any persons acting on behalf of the parents.

*Please note that the UCAPA is not in effect in Connecticut. Cabanillas & Associates attorneys in our Fairfield County office can still assist you in your international child custody case.

When does it make sense to seek a temporary child custody order?

Temporary child custody orders are drawn up for various reasons including for the following circumstances:  

  • During the period of time between a couple’s separation and divorce

  • During one parent’s illness or hospitalization

  • When one parent is serving time away in the military

What should I do to prepare for my upcoming child custody hearing?

It is important to work closely with your child custody attorney to prepare for each court appearance. Your attorney will be able to tell you what to expect and how to best prepare.

For all court appearances, be sure to dress appropriately and to be respectful to the judge and all court staff.

Common Phrases

The following list includes common phrases used in the child custody courts. It will benefit you to learn these so that it is easy to follow along in court and with your attorney.

Physical Custody: Children live with parents who have physical custody.

Legal Custody: Parents who have legal custody are able to make legal decisions on matters impacting the child.

Sole Custody: One parent has both physical and legal custody of the child. The other parent may have visitation rights, but does not have any custodial rights, and cannot make decisions affecting the child.

Joint Legal Custody: In a situation of joint legal custody, both parents have a say in decisions that impact the child. In the event of a major dispute between parents who share joint legal custody, the courts can settle the dispute.

Joint Physical Custody: When parents share joint physical custody, the children split time between living with both parents.

Best Interest of the Child: When the judge determines the custody arrangement that best suits the child’s needs, based on a variety of factors usually including evidence of parenting ability, consistency in the child’s routine, the child’s age, and the child’s safety.  

Supervised Visitation: If the court determines that the child might be in danger if he or she is left alone with the parent, then the court will choose someone to supervise visits. This may be a family member or a court-appointed supervisor.

Therapeutic Supervised Visitation: This options allows a mental health professional to supervise the visits between the parent and child with the goal of improving parent-child communication and bonding during the visits.

Neutral Place of Exchange: Courts often allow unsupervised visits but require parents to use a neutral drop-off location in order to minimize conflict between the parents.

Monitored Transition: Occasionally, the courts will require that a third-party be present during visitation drop-offs in order to ensure everyone's safety and maintain a calm environment for the child.

Third Party Custody: There are times when the courts will determine that living with someone other than the parents would be the best child custody arrangement for the child. Examples include living with a grandparent, aunt, or sibling. In such cases, the courts may require the parent to participate in parenting classes, drug or alcohol rehabilitation, or an anger management program before formally re-evaluating the child custody arrangement.