Focusing on the "Best Interests" of the Child

Parents may resolve a child custody matter out of court through negotiation and agreement. If they can't, a court will have to decide who gets custody of the child. But either way, finding a solution that's in the child's "best interests" should be paramount. What does "the child's best interests" mean? It may seem straightforward, but the term has a particular meaning in family law.

Read on to learn more about the best interests of the child standard used by family courts.

The Child's Best Interests in Custody Cases

When a family court has to make decisions about custody and visitation rights, the most important factor is the best interests of the child. This means that the court considers what will be best for the child's life and well-being rather than what the parents may want.

Parents and courts should consider factors such as the child's:

  • Happiness
  • Security
  • Mental health
  • Emotional development

Many factors are taken into account when determining the best interests of the child. In cases where one parent is seeking sole custody of the child, the court will need to consider whether this is in the best interests of the child. This may involve looking at the desirability of maintaining strong emotional ties with both parents. Even in cases where both parents seek joint custody, the court must consider the child's best interests.

What Factors Determine the Child's Best Interests?

But what, exactly, is the best-interests-of-the-child standard? It isn't easy to define. The different sides in a custody dispute often have different perspectives. That can lead to an honest disagreement over what's best for the child.

The following are common factors considered by courts when determining the best interests of the child:

  • The parent-child relationship
  • The child's wishes (whether a state considers the child's preference varies depending on the child's age)
  • The age and sex of the child
  • The mental and physical health of the parents
  • Any special needs a child may have and how each parent takes care of those needs
  • Religious or cultural considerations
  • The need for continuing a stable home environment
  • Other children whose custody is relevant to this child's custody arrangement
  • The child's opportunity to interact with their extended family, such as grandparents
  • Interactions and interrelationships with other family members
  • The parenting ability of each parent or the caregiver's capacity to parent
  • Adjustments to school and community (including extracurricular activities)
  • Whether there is a pattern of domestic violence in the home
  • Parental use of excessive discipline or emotional abuse
  • Evidence of parental substance abuse
  • Evidence of child abuse or sexual abuse

Courts don't just look at one specific factor. And there are more possible factors than what you see above. Courts will consider the totality of the circumstances, meaning they look at all relevant factors. The court's primary concern is the child's safety and happiness and meeting the needs of the child.

Types of Child Custody

Several different types of child custody may be awarded, depending on the specific circumstances of the case. Physical custody refers to where the child lives on a day-to-day basis. When one parent has physical custody, the child lives primarily with that parent, but the non-custodial parent may still have visitation rights (sometimes called “parenting time"). Legal custody refers to the ability to make important decisions about the child's life. This can include decisions involving education, medical care, and religion.

In some cases, a combination of different types of custody may be awarded. For example, one parent may have physical custody of the child while both parents have joint legal custody. The court will create a parenting plan detailing how much time each parent may spend with the minor child. It will also detail child support payments due to the primary caregiver.

The goal is always to create a custody arrangement in the child's best interests.

Find the Right Attorney for Your Child Custody Case

Custody battles can be difficult. Family law attorneys can help guide you through the complex legal hurdles you might face. They will help advise you of your state's parental rights and best interests factors. If you need help with custody decisions, you should consider speaking to an experienced attorney today.

Talk to a child custody attorney today.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Both parents can seek custody of their children — with or without an attorney
  • An attorney can help get the custody and visitation agreement you want
  • An attorney will advocate for your rights as a parent

A lawyer can help protect your rights and your children's best interests. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Once new child custody arrangements are in place, it’s an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and provide for your children. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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