In Family Law, contact (or in the United States, visitation) is one of the general terms which denotes the level of contact a parent or other significant person in a child's life can have with that child. Contact forms part of the bundle of rights and privileges which a parent may have in relation to any child of the family.
Following ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in most countries, the term "access" was superseded by the term contact. The terminology reflects a substantive change in the law. A parent is not necessarily any longer entitled to have "custody" of or "access" to a child. Instead, a child may be allowed to reside or have contact with a parent.
In most jurisdictions the nature of a couple's relationship changes when a child is born to that relationship. In law, there may be differences in the consequences depending on whether the relationship is heterosexual or between people of the same biological sex, and whether it is a marriage, a civil union (sometimes, as in Holland, described as a partnership), and cohabitation (sometimes amounting to a common law marriage in some states). All children are, to a greater or lesser extent, subject to the authority of their parents during the early years of their life, i.e. during what is termed their minority, states impose a range of incapacities until the children reach an age when they are deemed sufficiently mature to take responsibility for their own actions.
Issues of access and custody interact and overlap, and represent all of the aspects of care and control that parents may exercise in relation to their children. The extent to which the courts have jurisdiction to regulate access will depend on the nature of the parents' relationship. In the event of a marriage, the courts may adjust access rights as an aspect of proceedings for legal separation, annulment or divorce. In the event of other relationships, jurisdiction may be invoked by either spouse, partner, natural parent (which may sometimes include fathers from unlawful sexual relationships), adoptive parent, legal guardian or by a guardian ad litem appointed to represent any child's interests.
As a specific application of parens patriae (see public policy and the concept of best interests), most states treat the interests of any children caught up in litigation as their first and paramount concern. Usually, the children are not directly the parties to the lawsuit, so the courts have a range of options including the power to appoint a guardian ad litem to protect their interests. This is particularly important in cases involving the breakdown of any family relationship where questions relating to the welfare of the children will become significant in sometimes acrimonious disputes. At a supranational level, the Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasises the need to allow children a voice in any proceedings affecting their welfare. Significantly, it also suggests a change to the terminology, replacing "custody" and "access" with the concepts of "residence" and "contact".
However, the most common legal outcome to cases involving the issues of care and control reinforces the sexual stereotype that a mother is always the better qualified person to care for younger children. Whereas some jurisdictions formally prefer joint custody arrangements in situations where there has previously been a stable family relationship, many states have a formalised rebuttable presumption in favour of the mother, requiring a sometimes unreasonably high level of evidence to rebut, with the result that the access rights of perfectly capable men are sometimes denied in favour of women who have demonstrated a poor track record of care. Consequently, a new political trend represented by fathers' rights and men's rights movements, is developing in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western countries to demand 50-50 parenting (access and visitation are considered more archaic terms and the movements prefer the term parenting time). Under this system, there would no legal determination of custody, and the rights of both parents to equal time with their child(ren) (and vice versa) would be protected.
Visitation in the U.S.
Generally speaking, visitation is considered only a privilege granted to the non-custodial parent of any child of the family. The standard visitation awards by the family court in most U.S. states consists of alternating weekends and some holidays (usually amounting to four days a month unless the parent allows an increase in shared parenting time).
However, the child, at or around the age of 13, depending on the state, may choose in which parent's home to live without government interference.
Parents (and in some jurisdictions grandparents) frequently believe that they have a right to visitation or access; however, courts in several countries have used the subjective doctrine of the best interests of the child to deny parental or grandparental access to the child(ren). This is commonly found in cases when custody of the child(ren) is disputed and there is a history of interference with visitation. In such high conflict cases, there are often allegation of child abuse and/or domestic violence.
In high conflict cases, visitation may be supervised by a social worker, psychologist, guardian ad litem, or other third party while the noncustodial parent visits with the child.
Many noncustodial parents have visitation orders that allow the child to visit with them without any supervision. These visits often take place away from the custodial residence. Often the noncustodial parent is granted overnight visitation, weekend visitation, or vacation visitation.
Parents may also share custody and may agree to allow visitation. In these situations a court order may not be needed, though sometimes it is obtained to forestall later disputes about what the parents had previously agreed to, and to allow the courts to have some oversight over the children (which they normally have under statute and under the parens patriae power).