Understanding child custody in Louisiana

Deciding how to divide responsibility for child care after divorce is often one of the most challenging tasks that parents face when they decide to part ways. For these parents, it can be helpful to understand what the law is and how a court is likely to handle the matter.

In Louisiana, child custody is divided into the following two categories:

  • Physical custody: Sometimes referred to as "actual" custody, physical custody involves spending time with a child and caring for him or her.
  • Legal custody: Legal custody refers to a parent's right to make important decisions about the child's care and upbringing, such as where the child will attend school and what type of medical care he or she will receive.

When parents divorce or separate, a judge will award child custody according to the best interests of the child. Louisiana courts recognize that it is typically in a child's best interest to have an ongoing, stable relationship with both parents. Therefore, judges will try to award joint custody to both parents unless there is strong evidence that doing so would not be in the child's best interest.

However, even an award of joint custody does not necessarily guarantee that parents will have equal time with the child or share equally in the ability to make important decisions for the child. For instance, a judge may find that a child should reside primarily with one parent because of school or other considerations. In these cases, the parent who lives with the child most of the time will often be awarded legal custody as well.

How is the child's best interest determined?

In a Louisiana divorce, the best interests of the child are always a judge's primary consideration when ruling on matters of child custody. To determine the child's best interests, judges consider several factors before reaching a decision. Among others, these factors may include:

  • The existing bond between the child and each parent
  • Each parent's capacity to provide for the child's physical and emotional needs
  • The mental and physical health of each parent
  • The moral fitness of each parent as it pertains to the child
  • Each parent's willingness to encourage a close relationship between the child and the other parent

Louisiana parents have the option of negotiating a child custody agreement outside of court and submitting it to the judge as a recommendation. Although the judge is not required to grant the parents' request, he or she will take their preferences into consideration and in many cases will grant the custody arrangement that the parents have chosen.

Modifying child custody in Louisiana

To modify a child custody arrangement in Louisiana, parents must seek approval from the court. The process varies depending on how the original arrangement was determined.

If the initial custody plan was agreed to by the parents, they are only required to prove that there has been a change in circumstances, such as a move or change in employment status, and that the modification would be in the child's best interest.

The standards for modification are much higher if the original child custody arrangement was determined by the court. To modify a court-ordered plan, the parent requesting the change must prove that it is in the child's best interest, as well as one of the following:

  • That the current custody arrangement is so harmful to the child that the change is justified, or
  • That the benefits enjoyed by the child as a result of the proposed change would outweigh any harm it causes to the child

For assistance creating or modifying a child custody plan in Louisiana, contact an experienced divorce and child custody lawyer.