It's no doubt that custody battles can be exhausting and emotional. Although most parents work together to settle custody cases out of court, some still choose to drag the case in front of a judge because one or both parents can't set aside their ego and do what's best for their children.
Every state has a different method of evaluating custody, but when you ask the court for help deciding who should have primary custody or visitation with your child, the judge will determine what's in your child's best interest before deciding.
When it comes to child custody cases, the court's focus isn't on what each parent wants or needs when it comes to spending time with their children. Instead, it's about what each parent can provide for the child, and whether time with the parent will support the child's well-being.
The goal in every custody case is for the court to decide which parent can provide the child with stability, love, and affection. Judges also want to ensure that parents can give the child the necessities of life, like food, shelter, and clothing.
Typically, it's in the child's best interest to maintain a close relationship with both parents, but if one or both of the parents aren't fit to care for the child, the court will evaluate what's in the child's best interest before creating a custody plan for the family.
Each state has its own set of factors—typically referred to as the best interest factors—that judges must evaluate when deciding custody. Although states may differ slightly, the most common factors include:
It's important to understand that no single factor is more important than the other. Instead, the court will look at all the factors, facts, and family history to decide whether one or both parents are best suited to care for the child on a day-to-day basis. Additionally, each court can evaluate any other factors that the judge believes will affect the child's best interests.
Some states allow the judge to ask a division of the family court for assistance with evaluating what's in a child's best interest when it comes to deciding custody.
For example, in Michigan, parents with custody disputes must file a motion with the Friend of the Court, which begins the process of a custody investigation. During the investigation, a social worker specially trained in custody and parenting time will meet separately with each parent and the child to evaluate what's in the child's best interest for custody and parenting time. At the end of the investigation, the social worker will prepare a written recommendation detailing the findings of the interviews (listing findings for each best interest factor) and will submit it to the court. In most cases, the judge adopts the worker's recommendations, even if one parent objects.
Other states require parents to attend court-ordered mediation before asking the judge to decide. Mediation is a process where a neutral third-party helps facilitate a discussion between the parents about custody and helps the parents reach an agreement instead of asking the court to do it for them.
Custody mediators are trained in their state's best interest factors and will help the parents understand how a judge would decide custody based on those factors, which avoids costly and needless litigation in court.
Although you may think you know what's in your child's best interest, it may not line up with your child's other parent or what the court determines. Consider hiring an experienced family law attorney before you file for custody or try to resolve a custody dispute on your own.