The Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt divorce has brought child custody laws to the forefront, as Jolie asks for sole physical custody and joint legal custody of their six children and visitation rights for Pitt. Whether Pitt will contest physical custody or not might not be known until after the divorce is finalized, as Hollywood’s golden ex-couple are in agreement over asking the public to respect their and the kids’ privacy.
Jolie’s court request for physical custody of their brood of six, if granted, means the children will live with her and visitation rights for Brad will be determined by the court. Joint legal custody means both parents have the right and obligation to decide on major decision affecting the children’s lives, such as their education, healthcare, religion, etc.
In California, where Jolie filed for divorce, the couple will usually come up with a Parenting Plan with the help of their respective lawyers and a mediator and the judge will generally approve it. If they cannot agree on custody and visitation issues, the judge will decide for them via a court hearing. Since the principle behind child custody is always “the best interest of the child,” custody should ideally be given to both parents so that the children will have the presence of a mother and father in their lives.
However, if the child is exposed to harm or danger from one of the parents, sole physical custody may be awarded to the “safe” parent and the dangerous parent may only get visitation rights. In Brad Pitt’s case, the allegations of verbal and physical abuse on the children, and his alcohol and substance abuse which are now spreading all over media and the internet, may influence the court to grant Angelina Jolie’s petition for sole physical custody, if the rumors are backed up by evidence..
Child custody laws in the United States underwent a change in the 1970s, when women started having careers and were contributing to the household income. They demanded and were granted gender equality in the workplace. But that gender equality also extended to the homes. Prior to this social shift, based on the Tender Years Doctrine, mothers were perceived as the nurturing parent and in divorce cases, child custody was almost always given to them, except in special cases where they were deemed unfit.
Today, groups and advocates for equality in child custody laws have gained ground although there is still more that needs enhancement. In Massachusetts for example, the Shared Parenting Bill did not pass the Senate but it will be reintroduced in the 2017 legislative sessions.
In 1969, California passed the no-fault divorce, the first state in the US to do so. This means divorce is granted without having to show wrongdoing by either spouse. “Irreconcilable differences” is valid ground for divorce and is the common reason given. In 1979, it also passed legislation prohibiting gender bias when granting sole custody to one parent. California courts do not give preference or disfavor to joint or sole physical or legal custody. In the absence of a parenting plan, they make their decisions based on the “best interest of the child” principle.
The California Family Law that gives the child an option to preference on custody took effect in 2012. When the child reaches 14 years of age, he or she may choose which parent to live with. At below 14 years old, the court has to evaluate the child’s reasoning capacity and determine if he or she is able to intelligently discern such a decision.
Laws evolve as the social landscape and family dynamics shift. Since child custody is a significant concern in divorce cases, the parties involved should hire the services of a skilled and experienced child custody attorney so that they will not lose their rights to custody especially if it is a high conflict divorce.