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What are the child custody laws in New York?

What are the child custody laws in New York? Read on to learn how courts determine child custody in NY and more.

evident Editorial Team
November 20, 2023
Children with muddy boots

Child custody can be one of the most emotionally-charged and contentious areas of family law, and going through a child custody battle is a stressful experience. But understanding the process and how it works can alleviate much of the stress and uncertainty involved.

This article will cover the basics of child custody laws in New York and explain how New York courts determine who gets custody. 

Key Takeaways

What are the types of child custody in NY?

The first thing to know about child custody laws in New York is that there are two types of child custody: legal custody and physical custody. 

Legal custody refers to the right to make decisions regarding a child’s medical care, schooling, religious upbringing, or other important matters. 

Physical custody, on the other hand, refers to who the child resides with and who is responsible for their physical well-being.

In New York, these two types of custody can be granted as either joint or sole custody. In other words, legal custody and physical custody can each either be shared between the parents, or they can be given to one parent. In the absence of any court order, in New York both parents have equal rights to legal custody and physical custody of the child.

If the court gives parents joint legal custody in NY, they must make important decisions about the child together. This is true even if one parent has physical custody--so regardless of who the child lives with, both parents would need to agree on decisions. 

If a court gives joint physical custody in NY, this means that the child lives with each parent for a roughly equal amount of time. If the court gives sole physical custody to one parent, the child lives with that parent for more than half of the time while the other parent usually has rights to visitation, also referred to as “shared parenting” in NY.

Note that while there are theoretically a limited number of ways that a judge can award custody in New York, the actual specifics of custody arrangements can vary greatly depending on a family’s circumstances.

Visitation rights in New York

New York courts want children to have a relationship with both parents, so visitation rights are generally given to the non-custodial parent unless there is a good reason not to. Custody and visitation are considered separate matters, but the court often decides them in the same hearing.

Visitation–-also referred to as “parenting time”--can be requested by a child’s:

  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Siblings

Parents are often able to agree on a visitation schedule themselves. But if not, a judge will hold a hearing to decide on a visitation schedule. 

Who can get child custody in New York?

Child custody is usually assigned to a child’s parents in NY, but it is worth remembering that custody could be given to someone else depending on the circumstances. For example, a NY court could award custody to a child’s grandparents.

How is child custody determined in New York?

When deciding legal and physical custody, New York courts will consider “the best interest of the child.” This raises the question: “what does ‘best interest of the child’ really mean?”

The “best interest of the child” test is admittedly fuzzy, and even the NY Courts website acknowledges there is no standard definition of the term. But the phrase also means basically what it sounds like, and the NY Courts website does provide a list of things that New York judges look to when considering the best interests of a child, including:

  • The parenting skills of each parent, and their ability to provide for the child’s welfare
  • Which parent has been the main caregiver of the child
  • The mental and physical health of both parents
  • Work schedules of each parent
  • Whether there is any history of domestic violence in the family
  • And, depending on the child’s age, what the child wants

At what age can a child decide which parent to live with in NY?

There are two things to keep in mind about the child’s preferences under child custody laws in NY: 

  1. There is no specific age at which the court begins considering the preferences of the child. The court will generally give more weight to the child’s preferences the older they are, but there is no particular threshold or cutoff for when the court will consider a child’s preferences. 
  2. The child's preferences may be an important factor in a court's decision, but they are just one of the many factors a NY court will consider in determining what is in the child's best interest.

Thus, there is no particular age at which a child in NY can decide for themselves which parent to live with – the child’s preferences are just one factor courts in New York will consider when determining custody. But, keep in mind that courts in New York can only make decisions about a child’s custody until the child is 18 years old.

Do New York courts favor one parent over the other in custody decisions?

It’s also important to note that, as the NY Courts website states, courts do not favor one parent over the other as a matter of practice. Instead, child custody laws in NY require the court to look at the factors noted above to determine what is best for the child. 

As noted above, both parents in New York have equal rights to legal custody and physical custody of the child in the absence of a court order stating otherwise.

Is New York a 50/50 custody State? 

So if New York courts do not always favor one parent, you may be wondering is New York a 50/50 custody state? No, child custody laws in NY do not require custody to be split 50/50. 

50/50 custody arrangements are certainly possible in New York, and the courts do generally prefer to have both parents involved in the child’s life. But there is no automatic presumption in New York that there should be a 50/50 custody arrangement.

Reaching your own agreement

Keep in mind that the best outcomes are often reached by coming to out-of-court agreements on your own terms. This is true in many areas of family law, but particularly so for child custody matters for a few reasons.

First and foremost, no one knows your family better than you do. So whether it’s your respective work schedules, the needs of your child, or another factor specific to your family that a judge might not fully appreciate, no one will know what custody arrangements will work best for your family than you and your family. 

Plus, reaching an agreement on your own terms will almost certainly be less stressful and less expensive than fighting things out in court. Not all couples can work together in these situations, but it will save you time, money, and headache if you can.  

And at the end of the day, no one wants to be in a position where someone else (i.e., the judge) makes life-changing decisions about your family.

Custody Laws in New York: The Bottom Line

Dealing with child custody issues can be stressful, and navigating the legal side of things can feel overwhelming. But it helps to understand the process, so now that you've read this article, you're already better prepared for what lies ahead than you were.  

If you plan on speaking with any New York child custody lawyers, check out our article on the key questions to ask a child custody lawyer.