When parents get divorced, judges usually grant custody to one parent. The noncustodial parent still has the right to spend time with their child, often according to a court-ordered schedule. This right is known as visitation. If children are old enough, they have a say in the schedule, but once the court has finalized the custody plan, it must be followed and children generally cannot refuse.
How Custody Decisions Are Made
In nearly all cases of divorce, parents decide upon and finalize a custody agreement before ever appearing before a court. When an agreement cannot be reached, a judge will make a final decision based on what he believes to be in the best interest of the child. The court will consider which parent has been the primary caretaker of the child in the past, which parent can give the child the more stable environment and the child's preference.
Why a Judge's Ruling Must be Followed
After a judge has signed a visitation order, it becomes an official ruling. If a child says that they don't wish to visit their non-custodial parent according to an agreed-upon schedule and the custodial parent agrees to do what the child wants, they are guilty of contempt of court. If the other parent complains to the judge, the judge can serve the custodial parent with papers requiring them to come to court and explain why visitation has not been upheld. The court might then require extra visitation to make up the lost time.
Exceptions and Modifications to a Custody Order
If the child or custodial parent has a reason to believe that continuing visitation as ordered is not in anyone's best interests, a modification to the visitation order can be sought. This could happen if a parent is abusing drugs or alcohol, neglecting the child during their visits or if the court or the other parent fears for the child's safety during visitation. Sometimes visitation will be changed to supervised visitation only, in the presence of a social worker or other responsible party. In many states, if the child is over the age of 12, she can express preference toward a particular schedule to the judge.
Why Visitation is Important
During a divorce where minor children are involved, state courts keep the child's best interests in mind throughout the proceedings. Provided that both parents are mentally sound and interested in caring for the child, the courts recognize that it is important for the child to have a connection with each parent and do everything within legal power to keep that connection alive. Often, a child's unwillingness to comply with visitation stems from anxiety about being away from the primary caretaker, conflict between parents that makes them feel as though they need to choose a side or simple differences in parenting styles. Many times, these issues can be resolved through open and honest communication among both parents and the child.