Child Custody: Summaries of State Laws

Most legal matters involving the family are governed by state law, and child custody is no exception. Child custody laws are fairly similar from state to state but there are some notable variations. For instance, while states generally make custody determinations based on "the best interests of the child," they may disagree on what that actually means. A handful of states don't officially consider the wishes of a child when awarding custody. Some states reject the traditional phrase "child custody," preferring terminology such as "parental responsibilities."

While all states recognize that grandparents have visitation rights, judges will carefully consider any parental objection, because the U.S. Supreme Court has held that parents have a constitutional right to rear their children.

When working out a custody agreement, it helps to first understand the law of your particular state.

Alabama: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Alaska: The best interests of the child are determined based on numerous factors, including the emotional needs of the child, the relationship between the child and each parent, and the wishes of the child.

Arizona: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Arkansas: In determining the "best interests of the child," the judge considers numerous factors including each parent's home environment, the work schedules of the parents, and the child's preference.

California: California child custody procedure centers mostly around creating a parenting plan. The parenting plan lays out the details of custody, and should be agreeable to both parents. More importantly, it must be in the child's best interests, otherwise a court will not accept it.

Colorado: In 1999, Colorado switched from calling child custody by its traditional name and instead began using the term "parental responsibilities."

Connecticut: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Delaware: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

District of Columbia: D.C. law includes a presumption that joint custody is in the best interests of the child, though this presumption can be challenged (rebutted) in custody proceedings.

Florida: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Georgia: Georgia child custody laws specify that children age 14 and older may choose which parent to live with, but the judge may overrule this decision if the child's decision is not in the child's best interests.

Hawaii: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Idaho: Like most states, Idaho use the standard of the "best interests of the child" to determine child custody.

Illinois: Illinois child custody laws specify that children age 14 and older may choose which parent to live with, but the judge may overrule this decision if the child's decision is not in the child's best interests.

Indiana: Indiana family courts can consider any factor relevant to a child's best interests. These factors include the child's relationship with any siblings, and the need for consistency and continuity in education and community. By age 11, a child typically may tell the judge his or her custody preference.

Iowa: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Kansas: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Kentucky: In determining what is best for the child, a judge will consider numerous factors including the child's wishes, the emotional bonds between the child and both parents, and how hard a time the child would have adjusting to a new neighborhood or school.

Louisiana: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Maine: Maine law states that moms and dads are the "joint natural guardians" of their children. Parents can be granted joint custody.

Maryland: A child 16 or older may petition for a change of custody.

Massachusetts: Massachusetts does not generally consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Michigan: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Minnesota: The judge may interview the child in chambers to determine his/her preference of custodial parent if the court decides the child is mature enough to do so.

Mississippi: Courts do not officially consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Missouri: The court determines custody based on the best interests of the child. Custody can be joint legal, joint physical, sole legal, sole physical, or any combination.

Montana: In Montana, child custody and visitation is called "parenting." A family law judge will decide the terms of a parenting agreement unless both parents can agree on a plan that meets the court's approval.

Nebraska: A custodial parent may relocate out of state with his or her children if the other parent doesn't object and if the court finds a good reason to allow the move, such as a remarriage or a job.

Nevada: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

New Hampshire: New Hampshire family courts consider a wide range of factors when making custody determinations, including the wishes of the child.

New Jersey: If the parents are seeking joint custody, the court will examine their ability to agree, communicate, and cooperate with regard to the child.

New Mexico: A child can state a preference as to which parent he or she would rather live with at any age. However, at age 14, the child's wishes are taken more seriously by the court.

New York: In determining the "best interests of the child," the judge considers numerous factors including each parent's ability to care for the child, the parents' work schedules, and the parents' ability to cooperate with each other.

North Carolina: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

North Dakota: There is an assumption that a relationship with both parents is in the child's best interests.

Ohio: In determining the "best interests of the child," the judge considers numerous factors including the parents' willingness to cooperate with each another and the physical proximity of their homes to one another.

Oklahoma: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Oregon: Oregon does not generally consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Pennsylvania: If parents are unable to present a suitable parenting agreement for the court's approval, the court will issue its own order to settle the matter.

Rhode Island: When determining custody, the child's own preference will be taken into account if the court believes the child is mature enough to make such a decision.

South Carolina: South Carolina significantly modified its child custody laws in 2012.

South Dakota: South Dakota encourages joint custody between parents and considers the preference of children old enough to make their own decision.

Tennessee: Tennessee courts are required to state, in writing, why their custody decision is in the child's best interests.

Texas: Parents may choose to file a proposed parenting plan with the court. If they do not do so, the court will decide on a custody arrangement for them.

Utah: In determining the "best interests of the child," the judge considers numerous factors including the parents' demonstrated moral standards and the bonding between each parent and the child.

Vermont: Vermont refers to child custody as "parental rights and responsibilities." A family law judge will decide the terms of a parenting agreement unless both parents can agree on a plan that meets the judge's approval.

Virginia: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Washington: Washington child custody laws do not use the terms "custody" and "visitation." Instead, they refer to a parenting plan. A parenting plan should include where the children will live and with which parent, how the parents will make decisions regarding the children, and how future disputes between the parents will be resolved.

West Virginia: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Wisconsin: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Wyoming: Joint custody is an option, and courts will consider the wishes of the child in custody matters.

Get a Handle on Your Custody Case: Contact a Local Attorney

Child custody matters are never easy, emotionally or legally. It's important to protect your right to maintain a close, healthy relationship with your child. If you're facing a child custody issue, it's a good idea to get in touch with a skilled family law attorney who can explain how your state's laws apply to your situation and help you obtain a favorable custody agreement.

Next Steps

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