What You Need to Know about Child Custody in South Carolina

Child custody is one of the biggest concerns for divorcing or separating couples. It can lead to a wide range of emotions—and that’s before the legal nuances of the topic are addressed. 

Discussing custody can be a weighty topic, but when parents clearly understand what child custody is, its goals, and what to expect during child custody conversations, it can lower stress and uncertainty. It can even help parents feel more comfortable discussing their goals for a potential child custody arrangement and collaborating with their former partner.

Note that while educating yourself about child custody is a great place to start, it’s also essential to work closely with child custody attorneys. The right attorney will help you better understand the complexities of the legal system and how different provisions might apply to your situation. 

Custody arrangements in South Carolina

Child custody laws vary from state to state, but the underlying goal is the same: the child’s best interests. 

In the state of South Carolina, there are two general types of custody that we talk about: physical custody and legal custody. Understanding the legal meaning of these types of child custody arrangements in South Carolina can help you understand potential outcomes and what they would look like for you and your children.  

It can also help you feel more comfortable talking to your child custody attorney about your goals for child custody and strategies for achieving them. 

Physical custody

Physical custody is what typically comes to mind first when we talk about child custody. It’s which parent a child lives with, and depending on the facts of your situation, it can be either joint or sole custody. 

  • Joint physical custody means the child spends significant time with both parents.
  • Sole physical custody means the child lives primarily with one parent, though the noncustodial parent may have visitation rights. 

When a parent or parents have physical custody of a child, they’re responsible for providing food, clothing, medical care, transportation, and all the other components of child-rearing.  

Legal custody

Legal custody refers to the right of a parent to make major decisions on a child’s behalf. 

Note that we’re talking about “major” decisions, though. This goes beyond how much screen time your child gets or what cereal they have for breakfast. These significant, long-term decisions are the kind of ones that impact your child’s development, including: 

  • Where they attend school
  • Medical and dental care
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Religious upbringing

You can have legal custody without having physical custody. Like physical custody, legal custody can either be sole or joint custody.   

In South Carolina, parents typically have joint legal custody unless the courts deem that it’s not in the child’s best interest. This means both parents share the decision-making responsibilities for the child and must collaborate on those matters. 

In some instances, it may also make sense for one parent to be responsible for certain decisions (i.e., religious decisions) while the other parent is responsible for others (i.e., educational decisions). 

Sole legal custody means that one parent has the exclusive right to make major decisions about the child’s upbringing. The courts consider several factors before granting sole legal custody, such as: 

  • The child’s safety
  • The moral fitness of both parents
  • The child’s wishes (if they are of a certain age)

Even if one parent has sole physical and legal custody, the noncustodial parent still typically has equal rights to access the child’s educational and medical records. They can also participate in and attend school activities unless it’s not in the child’s best interests.

Less common custody arrangements

Also known as divided custody, split custody is a type of arrangement that involves splitting siblings between parents. Each parent is given full physical—and often legal—custody of different children in the family. 

Split custody is less common than physical and legal custody and is generally seen as a last resort. It’s usually granted only under extreme circumstances, like when one parent is deemed unfit to care for all children, or there’s a dangerous conflict between siblings.

This approach isn’t preferred because it may cause further psychological trauma to children in an already difficult situation. It’s usually considered when it’s in the best interest of each child, and all other custody options are deemed unsuitable.

How is child custody decided in South Carolina? 

Parents can often work together to come up with their own custody agreement with the help of mediators and attorneys, who can facilitate productive negotiations. When possible, the court will suggest the parents work out an agreement between themselves, such as through mediation.

There are benefits to working with your co-parent to negotiate a mutually acceptable child custody agreement using strategies like mediation. To start, you’ll be able to decide what works best for your situation. While this can involve compromise at a time when finding common ground might be difficult, it can lead to a more personalized and flexible child custody plan. 

For example, if you have an unpredictable work schedule but want to keep as much parenting time as possible, you and your co-parent could create a joint physical custody arrangement that allows for different schedules on different weeks.

However, if an agreement can’t be reached between the parties themselves, parents may have to attend a custody trial in which a judge will determine what’s in their child’s best interest. While litigation can feel like a stressful prospect, working with the right attorney can make a big difference; they can help you understand your legal options while staying focused on your long-term goals.  

What factors influence custody decisions? 

The courts consider a wide range of factors when determining how to outline custody orders for a family. This can include the following:

  • The child’s developmental needs and temperament
  • The parent’s capacity to meet the child’s needs, including financially and emotionally
  • Each parent’s custody desires and each child’s preferences
  • The child’s relationships and interactions with each parent, their siblings, and other family members
  • The degree to which each parent encourages parent-child relationships 
  • Parental manipulation, coercive behavior, or disparagement of the other parent
  • The ability of each parent to effectively co-parent and communicate with the other
  • Active parental involvement
  • The child’s adjustment to their current environment
  • The stability and safety of each residence
  • The mental and physical health of the parents and child
  • The child’s cultural and spiritual background
  • Any history of domestic violence, abuse or neglect
  • Parental relocation
  • Other factors, such as the impact of the parent’s gender or the opinions of social, medical, and mental health professionals

A quick overview of the child custody court process

What can you expect during a child custody court case in South Carolina? Every case is different, but there are generally six steps to the process:

  1. Complaint: Draft a formal request to the court to establish a custody arrangement.
  2. Filing paperwork: Submit the completed paperwork and any required filing fees to the appropriate family court in South Carolina.
  3. Temporary hearing: The court establishes a temporary custody arrangement after hearing each parent’s case. Not every issue can be heard at a Temporary Hearing, but it does set the standard while the case is ongoing and is often looked at to determine the child’s best interests when the court grants its Final Order.
  4. Mediation: A neutral third party helps facilitate discussions and negotiations between parents to find a mutually acceptable solution.
  5. Custody trial: If mediation does not result in an agreement, both parents go to court to present their full, detailed case before a judge.
  6. Final decision: The judge uses the evidence presented during the trial to issue a custody order.

When custody is highly contested or the court believes one or both parental situations to be at risk for the child, the Court may appoint a Guardian ad Litem to investigate the best possible result for the child. Court-mandated custody arrangements typically last until your child turns 18 or is emancipated. You can also file a request to modify custody arrangements in response to major life events. 

It’s normal to feel unsure of how this process applies to your specific situation. Your attorney can help you gain a clearer understanding of your legal rights and options for resolution along the way.

Compassion, support, and experience for every step of your child custody case

Navigating the complexities of a child custody case requires more than just legal knowledge and experience. It also calls for a compassionate understanding of family dynamics. 

At Sentinel Law Firm, we recognize the weight of what’s at stake: the well-being and future of your child. Our experienced attorneys are dedicated to providing you with the advice and support you need during this challenging time. We’re here to guide you through each step of the process and fight to protect your rights.

Need representation in South Carolina or simply have more questions? Schedule your consultation today to see how we can help you.

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