7 Important Things Regarding Custody and Visitation in Virginia

1. You have an equal right to visitation with your child in the absence of a court order. Each parent has a legal right to spend time with a minor child. If you are the child’s mother, you have an equal right to visitation and parenting time with your child; the same is true if you are the child’s father.

2. There is no maternal preference in Virginia for child custody. Conversely, there is no paternal preference. Courts look at what would be in the child’s best interest.

3. To file for visitation rights, you should file your case in a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in the district where your child lives, where you live, where your child’s other parent lives or where there is a prior court order. Virginia law establishes specific rules regarding jurisdiction or which court has the authority to preside over your case. If you have a pending case in Circuit Court for a divorce, you can ask the Court to establish a temporary (pendente lite) visitation or custody schedule.

4. Virginia distinguishes between legal and physical custody. Legal custody is the ability to make decisions regarding your child’s upbringing and any other medical, personal and legal decisions affecting your child’s welfare. Physical custody is the right to spend parenting time with your child. You can have sole or joint legal custody and sole or joint physical custody.

5. Your duty to support your child is separate and distinct from your right to spend time with your child. Thus, if you fail to financially support your child, the child’s other parent cannot withhold visitation solely on this basis. However, the child’s other parent can sue you for nonpayment of child support and require you to show cause as to why a court should not find you in contempt of a prior court order. A contempt order can lead to criminal penalties and/or fines.

6. Active service members have special rights under Virginia law, including rights under new legislation passed in 2011.

7. Anyone with a “legitimate interest” in your child’s well-being can file for visitation or custody of your child.

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