§ 721 Commencement of proceedings; venue; notice; pleadings; attorney for child; removal from jurisdiction; considerations.
(a) A child custody proceeding is commenced in the Family Court of the State, or as otherwise provided by law, by a parent filing a petition seeking custody of the child in the county where the child is permanently a resident or where he or she is found.
(b) Notice of a child custody proceeding shall be given to the child's parent, guardian and custodian, who may appear and be heard and may file a responsive pleading. The Court may, upon a showing of good cause, permit the intervention of other interested parties.
(c) The Court may, in the interest of the child, appoint an attorney to represent the child in the proceedings. A fee for an attorney so appointed shall be allowed as part of the costs of the proceeding.
(d) Upon the filing of a petition for custody or visitation, a preliminary injunction shall be issued against both parties to the action, enjoining them from removing any natural or adopted child of the parties then residing in Delaware from the jurisdiction of this Court without the prior written consent of the parties or the permission of the Court. The preliminary injunction shall be effective against the petitioner upon the filing of the petition for custody or visitation and upon the respondent upon service of a copy of the petition.
(e) A custody proceeding between parents shall be determined in accordance with §§ 722, 729 and Chapter 7A of this title, whichever shall apply.
§ 722 Best interests of child.
(a) The Court shall determine the legal custody and residential arrangements for a child in accordance with the best interests of the child. In determining the best interests of the child, the Court shall consider all relevant factors including:
(1) The wishes of the child's parent or parents as to his or her custody and residential arrangements;
(2) The wishes of the child as to his or her custodian or custodians and residential arrangements;
(3) The interaction and interrelationship of the child with his or her parents, grandparents, siblings, persons cohabiting in the relationship of husband and wife with a parent of the child, any other residents of the household or persons who may significantly affect the child's best interests;
(4) The child's adjustment to his or her home, school and community;
(5) The mental and physical health of all individuals involved;
(6) Past and present compliance by both parents with their rights and responsibilities to their child under § 701 of this title;
(7) Evidence of domestic violence as provided for in Chapter 7A of this title; and
(8) The criminal history of any party or any other resident of the household including whether the criminal history contains pleas of guilty or no contest or a conviction of a criminal offense.
(b) The Court shall not presume that a parent, because of his or her sex, is better qualified than the other parent to act as a joint or sole legal custodian for a child or as the child's primary residential parent, nor shall it consider conduct of a proposed sole or joint custodian or primary residential parent that does not affect his or her relationship with the child.
§ 723 Temporary orders.
(a) A party to a custody or visitation proceeding may move for a temporary custody or visitation order. An application for temporary custody or visitation shall be accompanied by an affidavit setting forth the factual basis for the motion or application with particularity. The Court may issue a temporary custody or visitation order without requiring notice to the other party and without a hearing only if it finds on the basis of the affidavit or other evidence that irreparable harm may result to the minor child if such an order is not issued without notice to the other interested parties or any opportunity by them to be heard. In the event such an order is entered, a copy of the order shall be served upon all other interested parties as soon as practicable and they shall have an opportunity to be heard in opposition to the application as soon as practicable.
(b) If a custody and/or visitation proceeding commenced in the absence of a petition for divorce or annulment is dismissed, any temporary custody or visitation order shall be vacated.
§ 724 Interviews.
(a) The Court may interview the child in chambers to ascertain the child's wishes as to his or her custodian and may permit counsel to be present at the interview. The Court shall, at the request of a party, cause a record of the interview to be made and it shall be made part of the record in the case.
(b) The Court may seek the advice of professional personnel whether or not they are employed on a regular basis by the Court. The advice given may be in writing and shall for good cause shown be made available by the Court to counsel of record, parties and other expert witnesses upon request, but shall otherwise be considered confidential and shall be sealed and shall not be open to inspection, except by order of the Court. Counsel may call for cross-examination any professional personnel consulted by the Court.
(c) The Court may, sua sponte or upon request of any party including the child, interview a child on the record regarding any factual statements pertaining to the matter before the Court. Any party may request to submit questions to the judicial officer to be asked of the child. Where all parties are represented, the Court may upon request permit counsel for the parties to observe the interview if, in the opinion of the Court, their presence will not adversely affect the welfare or well-being of the child. The Court may permit any person to be present during the interview whose presence, in the opinion of the Court, contributes to the welfare or well-being of the child. All parties to the matter shall be entitled to review the recorded interview in its entirety. Upon request, the Court may provide an oral or written summary of the interview to the parties.
(d) An out-of-court statement made by a child may be admitted into evidence by the Court if reasonable notice of the intention to offer the out-of-court statement is given to all parties and:
(1) The child is available to be interviewed pursuant to subsection (c) of this section, and the statement touches upon the matter before the Court; or
(2) The child's out-of-court statement is shown to possess particularized guarantees of trustworthiness, and the child is found by the Court to be unavailable to be interviewed on any of these grounds:
a. The child's death;
b. The child's absence from the jurisdiction;
c. The child's total failure of memory;
d. The child's refusal to comply with subsection (c) of this section;
e. The child's physical or mental disability;
f. The existence of a privilege involving the child;
g. The child's incompetence, including the child's inability to communicate about the matter before the Court due to fear or a similar reason; or
h. Substantial likelihood that the child would suffer emotional trauma from being interviewed as set forth in subsection (c) of this section.
(e) The Court shall support with findings on the record any rulings pertaining to the child's unavailability and the trustworthiness of the out-of-court statement admitted pursuant to subsection (d) of this section. In determining whether a statement possesses particularized guarantees of trustworthiness under paragraph (d)(2) of this section, the Court may consider, but is not limited to considering, the following factors:
(1) The child's personal knowledge of the event;
(2) The age and maturity of the child;
(3) Certainty that the statement was made, including the credibility of the person testifying about the statement;
(4) Any apparent motive the child may have to falsify or distort the event, including bias, corruption or coercion;
(5) The timing of the child's statement;
(6) Whether more than 1 person heard the statement;
(7) Whether the child was suffering pain or distress when making the statement;
(8) Whether the child's young age makes it unlikely that the child fabricated a statement that represents a graphic, detailed account beyond the child's knowledge and experience;
(9) Whether the statement has a "ring of verity," has internal consistency or coherence and uses terminology appropriate to the child's age;
(10) Whether the statement is spontaneous or directly responsive to questions;
(11) Whether the statement is suggestive due to improperly leading questions.
(f) This section shall in no way limit the admissibility of any statement under other Court rules or statutes governing admissibility. This section shall apply to all proceedings governed by this title as well as to all proceedings set forth in subchapter II of Chapter 9 of Title 16.
§ 725 Investigations and reports.
§ 726 Hearings.
(a) The Court without a jury shall determine questions of law and fact. All hearings and trials shall be conducted in private but the Court may admit any person who has a direct and legitimate interest in the particular case or a legitimate educational or research interest in the work of the Court.
(b) If the Court finds it necessary to protect the child's welfare, that the record of any interview, report, investigation or testimony in a custody proceeding be kept secret, the Court shall make an appropriate order sealing the record.
(c) The Court may tax as costs the payment of necessary travel and other expenses incurred by any person whose presence at the hearing the Court deems necessary to determine the best interests of the child.
§ 727 Custody.
(a) Whether the parents have joint legal custody or 1 parent has sole legal custody of a child, each parent has the right to receive, on request, from the other parent, whenever practicable in advance, all material information concerning the child's progress in school, medical treatment, significant developments in the child's life, and school activities and conferences, special religious events and other activities in which parents may wish to participate and each parent and child has a right to reasonable access to the other by telephone or mail. The Court shall not restrict the rights of a child or a parent under this subsection unless it finds, after a hearing, that the exercise of such rights would endanger a child's physical health or significantly impair his or her emotional development.
(b) Any custody order entered by the Court may include the following provisions:
(1) Granting temporary joint or sole custody for a period of time not to exceed 6 months in duration to give the parents the opportunity of demonstrating to the satisfaction of the Court their ability and willingness to cooperate with the custodial arrangement ordered. Following a timely review of this temporary order by the Court either at the end of this temporary period or sooner upon the application of any party to the proceeding, the Court shall have the authority to continue or modify the temporary order on a permanent basis.
(2) Counseling of the parents, and their child if appropriate, by a public or private agency approved by the Court to help the parents develop the necessary skills to deal effectively with the major as well as daily decisions involving their child under the custodial arrangement ordered, to continue until such time as the Court is advised in writing by the agency that such counseling is no longer required. Counseling expenses may be assessed by the Court as a cost of the proceeding.
(c) Any custody order entered by the Court shall include a contact schedule by the child with both parents which shall control absent parental modification by written agreement.
(d) Any custody order entered when 1 or both parents is a member of the armed forces, including the National Guard, and is being deployed, shall be an interim order, modifiable upon the return of the Armed Forces member to the United States or termination of service.
§ 728 Residence; visitation; sanctions.
(a) The Court shall determine, whether the parents have joint legal custody of the child or 1 of them has sole legal custody of the child, with which parent the child shall primarily reside and a schedule of visitation with the other parent, consistent with the child's best interests and maturity, which is designed to permit and encourage the child to have frequent and meaningful contact with both parents unless the Court finds, after a hearing, that contact of the child with 1 parent would endanger the child's physical health or significantly impair his or her emotional development. The Court shall specifically state in any order denying or restricting a parent's access to a child the facts and conclusions in support of such a denial or restriction.
(b) The Court shall encourage all parents and other persons to foster the exercise of a parent's joint or sole custodial authority and the maintenance of frequent and meaningful contact, in person, by mail and by telephone, between parents and children unless an order has been entered pursuant to subsection (a) of this section denying or restricting such contact. If the Court finds, after a hearing, that a parent has violated, interfered with, impaired or impeded the rights of a parent or a child with respect to the exercise of joint or sole custodial authority, residence, visitation or other contact with the child, the Court shall order such person to pay the costs and reasonable counsel fees of the parent applying for relief under this section. The Court shall also impose 1 or more of the following remedies or sanctions:
(1) Extra visitation with the child to enable the child to make up any wrongfully denied visitation with a parent;
(2) A temporary transfer of custody or primary residence or both of the child to a parent applying for relief under this section for up to 30 days without regard to the factors set forth in § 729 of this title;
(3) A surcharge to be assessed against the parent with rights of visitation with the child or children for his or her unilateral failure, without just cause and/or without sufficient notice, to comply with the visitation schedule. Failure to comply consists of more than minimal violations, such as, but not limited to, slight alterations in the times for visitation. The amount of the surcharge shall be up to 10 percent of the visiting parent's monthly child support obligation for each violation and shall be payable to the parent with whom the child resides or children reside;
(4) A fine in the discretion of the Court; or
(5) A term of imprisonment if a person is found to be in contempt of prior orders of the Court.
In addition, the Court may impose such other sanctions or remedies as the Court deems just and proper to ensure the maintenance in the future of frequent and meaningful contact between parent and child and participation by both parents in the child's upbringing if the parents have joint legal custody.
(c) A parent of a child who believes it to be in the best interests of a child for the custodial authority, visitation or communication between a parent and a child as established by a prior Court order or written agreement of the parties to be modified may apply to the Court for such modification, and the Court may grant such an application if it finds after application of the standards set forth in subsection (a) of this section that the best interests of the child would be served by ordering such a modification. The filing of an application under this subsection by any person shall not be a defense in an action brought against any person under subsection (b) of this section unless the Court has entered an appropriate order allowing such conduct prior to the occurrence of the conduct complained of in the action brought under subsection (b) of this section.
(d) Before entering an order for visitation to be conducted in a correctional facility the Court shall in addition to other relevant factors consider the following:
(1) The parent seeking visitation in a correctional facility had a substantial and positive relationship with the child prior to incarceration;
(2) The nature of the offense for which the parent seeking visitation is incarcerated;
(3) Whether the victim of the offense is the child, a sibling of the child, stepsibling, half sibling, parent, stepparent, grandparent, guardian or custodian of the child; and,
(4) Whether the child seeks a relationship with the incarcerated parent.
(e) The Court shall not enter an order requiring visitation in a correctional facility if the person incarcerated is a sex offender unless the requirements of subchapter II of Chapter 7A of this title are met.
(f) The Court shall not enter an order requiring visitation in a correctional facility if the person incarcerated has been adjudicated of committing murder in the first or second degrees.
§ 729 Modification of prior orders.
(a) An order concerning visitation may be modified at any time if the best interests of the child would be served thereby in accordance with the standards set forth in § 728(a) of this title.
(b) An order entered by the Court by consent of all parties, an interim order or a written agreement between the parties concerning the legal custody of a child or his or her residence may be modified at any time by the Court in accordance with the standards set forth in § 722 of this title.
(c) An order entered by the Court after a full hearing on the merits concerning the legal custody of a child or his or her primary residence may be modified only as follows:
(1) If the application for modification is filed within 2 years after the Court's most recent order concerning these matters, the Court shall not modify its prior order unless it finds, after a hearing, that continuing enforcement of the prior order may endanger the child's physical health or significantly impair his or her emotional development.
(2) If the application for modification is filed more than 2 years after the Court's most recent order concerning these matters, the Court may modify its prior order after considering:
a. Whether any harm is likely to be caused to the child by a modification of its prior order, and, if so, whether that harm is likely to be outweighed by the advantages, if any, to the child of such a modification;
b. The compliance of each parent with prior orders of the Court concerning custody and visitation and compliance with his or her duties and responsibilities under § 727 of this title including whether either parent has been subjected to sanctions by the Court under § 728(b) of this title since the prior order was entered; and
c. The factors set forth in § 722 of this title.
§ 730 Petition to modify custody.
A party seeking to modify a custody order shall file a verified petition setting forth facts supporting the requested modification.
§ 731 Attorneys' fees.
The Court from time to time, after considering the legal and factual basis for the action, the results obtained, the financial resources of the parties, and such other factors as the Court deems just and equitable, may order a party to pay all or part of the cost to another party of maintaining or defending any proceedings under this chapter and for attorney's fees, including sums for legal services rendered and costs incurred prior to the commencement of such proceedings. The Court may order that the amount be paid directly to the attorney, who may enforce the order in his or her name.
§ 732 Procedural rights.
Each party to a proceeding under this chapter (including the child, if counsel or a guardian ad litem for the child has been appointed by the Court) shall possess all the procedural rights which those parties would have heretofore possessed in any proceeding brought pursuant to this chapter in the Superior Court of this State, including, but not limited to, the following:
(1) Right to institute and retain complete control of the suit;
(2) Right to select counsel; and
(3) Right to appeal to the Supreme Court of this State on the record from interlocutory or final orders, such appeals to be in the form and manner provided by the Rules of the Supreme Court.
§ 733 Stepparent custody in certain circumstances.
Notwithstanding that there is a surviving natural parent, upon the death or disability of the custodial or primary placement parent, the Court, at the request of the stepparent shall continue the placement of the child or children with the stepparent pending a hearing on the merits, provided the child has or children have resided with the stepparent immediately prior to the death or disability of the custodial or primary placement parent. Where the child has or children have so resided with the stepparent the Court shall apply the provisions of § 722 of this title and may grant permanent custody or primary physical placement to the stepparent. If the Court grants custody or primary placement of the child or children to the stepparent, the stepparent shall have all of the rights and obligations of a parent until such time as the stepparent no longer has custody or primary placement of the child or children.