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A brief overview of child custody in Arizona

Embarking on a divorce with young children in tow can add several layers of complication to what already tends to be a difficult process. Understanding the basic principles involved can set the stage for a more detailed discussion with your attorney about how best to meet the needs of your children.

Arizona law divides custody issues into two major components: legal decision-making and parenting time. Parents have several options in how they may divide both types of responsibilities.

The power to make important decisions

Legal decision-making encompasses the major type of decisions parents typically make for their children. These include medical care, education, religious teachings and observance and other decisions that affect the child's present and future well-being.

Parenting time

Parenting time refers to the arrangements for the child's residence as well as the type and time of interaction with each parent. These are generally set forth in the parenting plan the court incorporates into the divorce judgment.

Various options for dividing parenting responsibilities

Legal decision-making can be sole - belonging only to one parent - or joint. In a sole decision-making scenario, while parents may discuss the issues, only one of them will have the final say.

Joint decision-making gives the two parents equal rights in the process. Whether decision-making is joint or sole does not legally depend on the parenting time arrangements. This simply means there is no rule that the parent with more time get to make more decisions, although the practicalities can indeed influence the court's opinion. In some joint decision-making settings, the court may nevertheless grant one parent the sole power to make decisions about specific matters.

As with other child-related matters, parenting time is generally decided based on the best interest of the child. The child may spend an equal amount of time with each parent, or live primarily with one and have visitation with the other. Parents may also consider the practice of nesting, where the child remains in the primary residence and the parents take turns living there with him or her. In Maricopa County, the court has published guidelines it uses in dealing with parenting time issues.

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