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What Divorcing Parents Need to Know About Child Custody in Utah

Parents with minor children who are facing divorce are usually primarily concerned with child custody matters. Getting enough family time with children after a divorce is vitally important to the health and happiness of any children and for the family as a whole.

Each state has different laws regarding child custody matters, although most follow similar guidelines. Physical custody is the type of custody granted to the parent who lives with the child. Legal custody is the type of custody in which the parent has the right to participate in important life decisions for the child, such as schooling or religious affiliation. Both parents can have both types of custody. Sole custody occurs when only one parent is awarded custody for either physical or legal custody, or both. In joint custody, both parents share custody. In Utah, joint physical custody means each parent lives with the child for at least 111 days in a year.

How a Court Decides Custody

In Utah, a court presumes that joint legal custody is in the best interests of the child, absent a valid reason to the contrary. Such reasons could include domestic violence, having a child or parent with special needs or if there is a large distance between the living spaces of the parents. A court does not presume that it is in a child's best interest to live with the mother or father based on the biological sex of the parent, but decides custody on the best interests for a particular child based on several factors involving the child and parents.

When establishing what is in the best interests of the child, Utah family courts rely on several factors defined by state law. However, that list is not exhaustive, meaning that a court can take any information that it deems relevant when deciding child custody. In Utah, the legislature specifically noted that a court should consider the following when reaching a decision on custody:

  • Previous parental conduct and the "demonstrated moral standards of each of the parties"
  • Which parent will act in the best interest of the child, including allowing the noncustodial parent frequent and continuing access to the child
  • "The depth, quality, and nature of the relationship between a parent and child"
Modifying a Child Custody Order

Utah state law recognizes that life changes occur after a divorce is finalized. While one custody arrangement may be appropriate soon after the divorce is final, changes in jobs, relocation and other matters may make a current child custody arrangement obsolete.

A parent must petition to the court in order to modify a child custody arrangement. If the parents cannot agree on a change, the court will look to two factors when deciding whether to change the child support order:

  • First, the court must find that "a material and substantial change in circumstances" has occurred since the last order was entered
  • Second, the court must determine that changing custody would be in the best interests of the child

Parents with questions regarding custody matters should consult with an experienced family law attorney to discuss their situation.