Child Custody and Parenting Time in Indiana: Overview

Indiana family courts issue custody orders to ensure the safety, health and emotional well-being of children. The orders also make sure children spend substantial time with each parent, when appropriate.

Courts prefer parents to agree on orders for legal and physical custody in a settlement agreement. When parents can't agree, a judge decides in a custody hearing.

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Legal custody

Legal custody determines parents' rights to make decisions regarding their child's health, education, activities, religious participation, overall upbringing and welfare. The details of your legal custody arrangement are included in your court orders, often in the form of a parenting plan.

Most Indiana parents share joint legal custody, in which they have equal decision-making powers and work together to make choices about their child.

In sole legal custody, one parent makes decisions without having to consult the other. Typically, the court orders this when the other parent poses a risk to the child due to domestic violence, child abuse, substance use or mental health issues. A parent can also choose to let their child's other parent have sole custody (but this doesn't eliminate their own child support obligation).

Physical custody and parenting time (visitation)

Physical custody determines whom your child lives and spends time with.

A parenting time schedule (formerly called a visitation schedule) details your physical custody arrangement. Ideally, parents share joint physical custody, in which they have equal time with the child in a 50/50 schedule.

However, it's common for one parent to have primary physical custody, in which their child lives with them more than the other parent (e.g., in 60/40, 70/30, or 80/20 split). The parent with more time is called the custodial parent, and the other parent is referred to as the noncustodial parent. (These parents often still share legal custody.)

In a settlement, you and the other parent can agree to any division of parenting time that meets your child's best interests (more below). Consult the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines when making your schedule.

When parents can't agree on a parenting time schedule, a judge decides. If a parent poses a risk to a child's safety or well being due to violence, substance abuse or other special circumstances, the judge will likely order supervised parenting time for that parent.

Child support

Divorce cases automatically include a child support order. If you're not married to the other parent, you can include child support in a custody case or get an order for child support only.

Which parent pays child support and how much depends on the physical custody arrangement, both parents' incomes and how much each spends on child rearing. Parents' genders and their marital status when the child was born aren't factors.

Getting court orders

Depending on your county, you may file a case with either a Circuit Court or Superior Court.

Married parents with children under 18 can file for legal separation or divorce; both require custody and child support orders. In a legal separation, spouses remain married but live apart, and their orders last one year only — then, they must either reconcile or start divorce proceedings.

When parents aren't married to each other, the mother automatically has sole legal custody until the court issues orders at the request of either parent. She may also have sole physical custody, depending on how parents confirm paternity.

If parents agree on all of the issues in their case, their case is uncontested and they submit a settlement agreement for a judge's approval.

If parents disagree, their case is contested. To encourage settling, many courts require parents to attempt mediation (unless the case involves domestic violence). If parents can't agree with the help of a mediator, they go to a custody hearing, similar to a trial. There, each parent presents evidence so a judge can decide the final orders.

Married parents can file for divorce or legal separation (both result in a parenting plan and a child support order). At least one spouse must have lived in Indiana for 6 months, and one spouse must have lived in the county where the case is filed for 3 months.

Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau (DRCB)

Every Indiana county with a population of more than 100,000 people (e.g., Lake City, Marion, St. Joseph) has a Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau that assists parents with domestic issues and custody disputes. DRCB staff members don't offer legal advice or representation.

The DRCB offers low-cost mediation to help parents reach a settlement agreement. In some counties, it also offers counseling, parenting coordination, the required parent education class and supervised parenting time exchanges. It also conducts court-ordered custody evaluations and provides guardians ad litem to look out for the interests of children in custody cases.

A judge may order you to use DRCB services — but a judge's order (or even an open court case) isn't required.

In Marion County, parents also file their custody case with the DRCB, but the Circuit Court still handles the case.

Custody factors: The child's best interests and basic needs

When approving agreements and deciding disputed cases, Indiana judges consider which parent has been the child's primary caregiver, as well as the:

  • Child's age
  • Parents' custody and parenting time wishes
  • Child's relationships with each parent and other family members
  • Child's adjustment to home, school and community
  • Parents' and child's mental and physical health
  • Stability of each parent's home
  • Evidence of a pattern of domestic violence (if any)

Additionally, if the child has a preference, the court considers it, giving more weight to the opinions of children over age 14. Children don't testify about their preferences in court. Instead, the judge may interview them without parents present. If the case has an evaluation or guardian ad litem, the professional assigned shares the child's preferences with the judge.

In disputed cases, the court also considers the child's basic needs to:

  • Know that their parents' decision to live apart is not their fault
  • Maintain an independent relationship with and receive care from each parent
  • Remain free of conflict between parents
  • Not be used by parents to manipulate each other
  • Spend regular and consistent time with each parent
  • Receive financial support from each parent
  • Be safe with each parent and third-party caregivers
  • Develop meaningful relationships with grandparents, step-parents and other relatives

Special circumstances

Special circumstances that can affect the process and outcome of a case include:

  • Third-party visitation or custody (e.g., with grandparents or former step-parents)
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Domestic violence and child abuse
  • Criminal history (including DUIs)
  • Extreme conflict between parents
  • Undocumented immigration

In these cases, the court may order a custody evaluation, in which a custody and mental health expert assesses the family and recommends custody and parenting time arrangements to the judge. The court may also appoint a guardian ad litem to investigate the case and represent the child's interests in court.

Experts recommend getting an attorney if your case involves these or other complex circumstances.

Length of proceedings and divorce waiting period

The length of the court process — from filing to final orders — depends on the specifics of the case and the court's schedule.

By Indiana law, divorcing parents must wait 60 days after filing in court before they can get a settlement approved and receive their final orders.

If you don't settle, your case will likely take six months to a year. Extremely complex or high-conflict cases can take more than a year to resolve.

Costs to expect

Attorney fees are the most significant costs for parents litigating custody, and they can vary widely. In cases that go all the way to a custody hearing, each parent typically pays around $10,000 to lawyers. More complex cases can cost them each $40,000 or more.

If you can't afford a lawyer, you may qualify for free or low-cost legal advice and representation through your local legal aid office or other state programs.

Often, parents choose to hire a private mediator before or after they file a case. Private mediators generally charge between $200 and $400 an hour. Private parenting coordinators charge similar rates.

Both parents must pay fees when they file paperwork with the court. These filing fees vary by case and county, but expect to pay at least $200 throughout the process. Other possible court costs include fees for court-ordered evaluations or mediation. Parents who can't afford court fees can apply for a fee waiver.

Representing yourself in a custody case

Many parents go through the custody process without a lawyer, making them, in the language of the court, self-represented litigants or unrepresented persons.

However, the law, paperwork and court procedures can be confusing for those without legal training, so self-representation is only advised in straightforward, uncontested cases.

Consult resources for self-representation, and prepare as thoroughly as a lawyer would. Review Title 31 of the Indiana Legal Code, and have a legal professional look over your paperwork.

Staying organized

The process of deciding legal decision-making and parenting time requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft parenting time schedules, calculate expenses, negotiate with the other parent and beyond.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of that in one place.

With a parenting plan template, parenting time calendars, an expense tracker, parent-to-parent messaging and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

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