The Child's Best Interests Are What Matter in Court

Every state has factors for the court to review when deciding child custody, but most begin with what's best for the child.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

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.

Understanding What Matters in Custody Cases

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.

Best Interest Factors When Deciding Custody

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:

  • the love, affection, and emotional ties between each parent and the child
  • each parent's ability to provide the child with a home, food, clothing, and the necessities of life
  • the child's preference (this factor is restricted in some states and greatly depends on the child's age, mental capacity, and willingness to provide an opinion)
  • each parent's ability to give the child loving support, parental guidance, and discipline
  • stability and consistency (courts like to keep the child's routine consistent, so if the child has routinely lived with one parent and has developed a schedule, school, and childcare routines, the court is less likely to disrupt the child's life with a change in custody)
  • each parent's moral fitness, drug and alcohol history, and the mental and physical health
  • whether either parent has a history of child or domestic abuse
  • each parent's willingness to facilitate a healthy and continuing relationship between the child and the child's other parent
  • the child's age and any special needs (younger children may require nursing and special needs children require specialized care that not all parents are capable of providing)
  • the history of the child's relationship with each parent. For example, has the child's mother been a stay-at-home parent and bonded with the child to the extent that awarding substantial or sole custody to the child's other parent would be detrimental?
  • the child's home, school, and community record, and
  • the child's relationships with other family members in the home, such as stepparents and siblings.

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 Courts Ask for Help

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.

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