When parents with minor children from their marriage decide to get divorced, or when unmarried parents decide to separate from one another, the parents will need to go through a legal process in which a court decides about child custody. Depending upon the state in which the parents file for divorce or petition for child custody, it may be possible for the parents to work together to develop a parenting plan, parenting schedule, or other document in which the parents decide how child custody will be awarded or allocated. In situations where parents cannot reach a conclusion or come to an agreement about child custody, then the court will turn to a variety of statutory factors in deciding about how child custody will be awarded or allocated.
Regardless of whether the parents develop a child custody plan, or the court decides about child custody, the parents and the court alike will need to rely on the “best interests” of the child standard. Every state has its own laws pertaining to child custody and the best interests of the child, and as such, it will be important for a parent to understand how family law in his or her particular state will define the best interests of the child.
Defining the “Best Interests of the Child” Based On a Variety of Factors
Every state has its own set of factors for determining what is in the best interests of the child, or in the child’s best interests. At the same time, states do have many common factors that can help parents or a court to determine what a child custody arrangement should look like. For example, if parents compare the “best interests of the child” statutory factors under Florida law and Illinois law, they will see that there are clear distinctions between the states while there are also similarities.
In general, lawmakers who draft factors to be used in determining what is in the best interests of the child are considering the child’s ultimate safety, health, and physical and psychological well-being. Lawmakers want to ensure that a child is in the best situation to adjust to school, to the community, and to the family situation. While states do have slightly different factors to be used in determining what is in the best interests of the child, most states generally use some version of the following factors:
To be clear, no single factor in child custody cases is dispositive—the court will not base its decision on a single factor alone. Rather, the court will look broadly at the various factors, and some may not be applicable to the family’s situation. It will then weigh the factors as appropriate based on the specific circumstances for a given family. Parents should also note the factors that are not listed above. For instance, courts never rely on gender stereotypes as factors in determining what is in the best interests of the child. To be sure, a court will not begin from a presumption that a child should be with its mother, for example.
Parents Will Need to Provide Evidence That Custody Is In the Child’s Best Interests
If a parent is petitioning for child custody or otherwise needs to show the court that she or he should be awarded child custody based on the “best interests of the child” factors, the parent will need to provide evidence. Proof that child custody is in the child’s best interests can come from a variety of sources, such as:
It is important for parents to remember that any actions during a child custody case ultimately may affect the outcome. For example, posting certain images or language on social media may be used against a parent in a child custody proceeding. Making negative comments about the other parent—especially to the child—can also hurt a parent’s standing in a child custody dispute. Parents should also remember that therapists, psychologists, and social workers want to ensure that a child custody situation is in the child’s best interests. Accordingly, if one of those figures makes a recommendation to the parent to be implemented, the parent should listen.
Parents who have questions about child custody and the best interests of the child should speak with a family law attorney in their state.