Child’s Best Interest Standard

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 What Is the “Child’s Best Interest” Standard?

There are different types of family law cases that may involve children, such as separation and divorce. One of the main concerns when a couple separates is who will get custody of the children.

It is always better for the parents to come to an agreement together that best suits their family. However, if an agreement cannot be reached or if the child custody dispute becomes too severe, the decision will be made by a court.

In order to determine these issues, the majority of family courts across the United States use the standard referred to as the child’s best interests. Although there is no perfect formula for determining what is in the child’s best interest, the analysis that is used by judges and family court mediators typically includes a variety of factors that are tailored to the particular child or children in question.

These may include:

  • The ability of the parent to care for the child;
  • The relationship the child has with that parent; and
  • Which home is better suited for the child’s needs or adjustment.

This means that, when the court is determining who gets custody and visitation and on what terms, the child’s interests will prevail over their parent’s desires. The child’s best interest takes precedence over the majority of state child custody laws.

The purpose of this standard is to ensure that a vulnerable class of individuals, children, are granted the utmost protections. According to the child’s best interest standard, an individual who is taking custody of a child must be able to provide a stable home environment and must be able to ensure their safety and well-being.

Individuals who are involved in these types of cases should consult with family lawyers who are familiar with the standard and can present the best argument in court. A family lawyer can also represent an individual during family mediation, which may be used as an alternative for a courtroom trial.

What Are the Factors in Determining the Child’s Best Interest?

Family laws, including custody and visitation laws, may differ by state. The majority of states, however, in general, consider the following factors when determining custody decisions.

Factors determining the best interests of the child examples include:

  • The child’s background, including their:
  • If the child is at least 12-14 years old, many jurisdictions will consider the child’s preferences as an important factor as long as the child demonstrates a certain level of maturity;
    • However, a child’s preferences are not a substitute for other factors;
    • Simply because a child prefers one parent over the other does not override the court’s consideration for the other factors;
  • Environmental factors, including:
    • the quality of education that is provided in each parent’s school district;
    • the safety of each parent’s neighborhood; and
    • proximity to other extracurricular activities;
    • Courts are more inclined to continue already established patterns for a child absent some important reason to change a school or neighborhood;
  • The physical and mental health of each parent;
  • Each parent’s ability to provide emotional and financial support for the child while the child is in their care;
    • While a poor parent will not be prevented from having custody of their child due to their financial status, a court may determine that the permanent residence should be with the parent who is able to maintain an appropriate home on a long-term basis;
  • The stability of each parent’s lifestyle and background;
    • Parents who have jobs that require substantial overnight travel may have difficulty securing residential custody unless changes at work are made;
  • The existence and level of attachment to other siblings or important family members in the home;
    • Courts typically encourage a child to maintain their relationships with half-siblings and other family members, such as grandparents; and
  • Each parent’s commitment to facilitating an ongoing and healthy relationship between the child and the other parent;
    • Parents who are cooperative with the other parent when it comes to their child’s needs and handle disputes respectfully are more inclined to receive custody and decision making authority than parents who speak ill of the other to the child and routinely pick fights in front of the children.

These factors will also be considered when a court is considering approving a child custody agreement.

Can the Judge Override the Child’s Best Interest Standard?

In some cases, a judge may override what is in the best interests of the child based on an extreme change within the family. For example, it may be in the child’s best interest to reside with the parent who has always been their primary caregiver.

If, however, there is a major change, such as a disability that makes parenting difficult for them to perform their regular caregiving activities, it may affect which parent is best suited. Another example of an extreme change is when one parent relocates for work across the country, which would make regular visitation challenging.

How Can I Determine What Is My Child’s Best Interest?

Many courts prefer parents to mediate or, in some other way, amicably agree on the details of their visitation and custody rather than going to court. As a result of this preference, there are many states that require parents to attend a certain number of mediation sessions before the court will hold a hearing to determine custody.

In order to avoid a long custody dispute, parents should attempt to resolve the issues themselves. This provides both parents with more control over the outcome rather than leaving the issue up to the court.

When an individual is working with their child’s other parent, they should:

  • Always be respectful to the other party regardless of their behavior;
  • Make a list or schedule of each child’s routine, including:
    • school;
    • extracurricular activities;
    • religious observances; and
    • any regular appointments for medical or family gatherings;
  • Compare their work schedule and other regularly scheduled commitments with the other parent’s schedule and find opportunities for the child to spend time with both parents throughout the week;
  • Consider how the parties will share holidays, birthdays and other important dates throughout the year;
    • Think about whether alternating holidays each year or splitting the day every year is best for the child;
  • Use family members or friends both parties trust to provide assistance or help resolve disputes; and
  • Understand that both of the parents will have to compromise and cooperate in order to ensure a successful result for the child.

If the parties reach an agreement together, it often ensures the long-term success of their schedule. If, however, an individual is in fear of the other parent or for their child’s safety, they may seek a protective order.

Should I Consult to a Lawyer?

If you are involved in any type of child custody issue, it is important to consult with a child custody lawyer who can help you understand what the local court is likely to do when the parents do not agree. Your attorney can also give you professional guidance to determine the best way to handle your particular custody and visitation dispute.

In addition, some family lawyers handle family mediations. This will allow both parents to come to an agreement that best suits their needs as well as their child’s without the need of a judge.

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