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Nothing is more important to you than your children. That’s why you need an aggressive and compassionate attorney by your side when disputes about children arise.

While a voluntary agreement between the parties can settle some custody and visitation cases, contested cases require a judge’s decision. When determining legal custody, physical custody, and visitation, the most critical factor to consider is what is in “the best interests” of the children. “The best interests” of the child is a legal standard that focuses on the child’s health, welfare, and general well-being.

  • “Legal custody” is a term used to identify the person or persons responsible for making legal decisions for the children, including medical, educational, and religious choices. 
  • “Physical custody” is distinct from legal custody and identifies the person or persons with whom the child will primarily reside. 
  • “Visitation” refers to the schedule set by agreement or by the court that defines what days and times the non-custodial parent will have time with the child.

Both legal and physical custody can be “sole” or “joint,” as explained in more detail below.

If the court awards a parent sole legal custody, it means that the parent has the authority to make all major decisions for the child. The court may grant one parent sole legal custody in many circumstances, including when:

  • the other parent has denied access to the child 
  • parental alienation is an issue, 
  • the parents can’t agree on anything, 
  • or if one parent is unfit to make decisions.

Joint legal custody provides both parents with equal power to make parenting decisions. It doesn’t mean that the parents will always agree, but joint legal custodians have equal legal rights. Often judges will specify specific terms for joint legal custody, such as requiring parents to confer on major decisions and defining how parents will communicate. Even high-conflict cases can result in joint legal custody or a hybrid approach where one parent has final decision-making authority if the parties cannot agree.

The judge will also decide physical custody and visitation in contested cases. Sole or primary physical custody means that one parent has the majority of the time with the child, and the other parent has visitation rights. Visitation will usually include overnight stays at the non-custodial parent’s house on weekends, summers, and holidays. Awarding sole physical custody with no visitation is very rare. The courts do not like to sever a parent’s access to their children entirely. Even in situations where one parent is unfit due to mental health issues, addiction, or even abuse, a court may still award restricted visitation under supervision.

Sometimes the parties may be awarded a shared custody arrangement where the parents have equal time. As with many legal matters, much of the result can depend on a particular judge and the locality of the custody case. While most courts generally do not default to equal time-sharing, many judges will grant shared custody to involved parents.

Split custody involves a situation where the parents have more than one child. The children are split between two parents, with one child going primarily to one parent and another to the other parent. While this is relatively rare, as judges generally prefer to keep siblings together, it may be considered with teenage children based on school requirements or other considerations.

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"I would highly recommend John Whitbeck to anyone needing legal counsel or representation. He was thorough, intentional, and professional in all of my dealings with him. He is well respected in the legal community of Loudoun County and is well liked by friends and colleagues alike. He has worked diligently to build a fabulous reputation and proven his knowledge of the law through his diligent practice in the area. No man would be as highly respected and sought after if he didn’t have the experience and professionalism to back it up."

Loudoun County, VA

"I have over 10 years experience personally with Mrs. Laffey and if you want the best of the best look no further. She is incredibly knowledgeable and experienced in all fields of family law. She genuinely cares about your case and your situation and does whatever she can to improve it and do what is best for everyone involved. She is a fantastic mediator on all fronts especially dealing with other parties attorneys in the courtroom and with you personally. She is definitely an advocate for children and wants to see them happy healthy and growing through these trying times. She responds to any inquiries emails or phone calls with prompt attention and goes out of her way to find a solution for your particular case. She's extremely easy to engage with and you will not be disappointed with her services. I can not sing her praises enough. So if you want your case handled professionally proficiently and with a touch of TLC I highly recommend that you call her you won't regret your decision."

Wilmington, DE

"My experience with WhitbeckBennett has been, and continues to be, extremely positive. My attorney, Mr. Beglis, has worked very hard for me. I can only wish that I had the sense to retain him for my Divorce, I would be in a completely different situation at this time! He is handling my custody issue. The level of comfort he has given me is worth everything to me. I truly feel like he is standing in front of me as a shield and his only function is to protect me and fight for me. This feeling, for me, is priceless. Thank you so much Mr. Beglis for giving me peace."

Leesburg, VA

"Amber Godfrey is a consummate perfectionist with a heart of gold and a passion for her clients. I highly recommend her and her firm for any family law matter."

Oklahoma City, OK

“Richard Tappan is one of the finest attorneys that you could have represent you...He went the extra mile and you can be assured this is just who he is...someone that will not let you down even though you are facing very difficult circumstances."

Vienna, VA

“James (Jim) did an excellent job with my case! Whenever I had any questions, he responded to my inquiry the same day and always provided a clear explanation. He made a confusing and stressful situation very, very simple and my case was closed in less than 3 months—even during this pandemic! I absolutely recommend!"

Leesburg, VA