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Understand the "Best Interests of the Child" Standard

And Show the Court That You Have Your Child's Best Interests at Heart, Too

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The courts' goal is always to uphold the best interests of the children.

Photo © Liz West

Nearly all courts base child custody decisions on the best interests of the child standard. This means that the judge will determine the custody arrangement that best suits the child’s needs, based on a variety of factors. The factors the judge considers will vary depending on the state in which the case is filed, since every state handles child custody cases slightly differently. Generally, the factors a judge will consider when determining the best interest of a child include:

  • Evidence of parenting ability. Courts look for evidence that the parent requesting custody is genuinely able to meet the child's physical and emotional needs. This includes food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, as well as education, loving support, and general parental guidance. Courts also consider the parents' physical and mental health when deciding a custody arrangement that would be in the child's best interests.

  • Consistency. Courts generally prefer to keep kids' routines consistent. This includes living arrangements, school or child care routines, and access to extended family members. Family court judges prefer not to disrupt a child's routine when possible.

  • The child's age. Young children generally need more hands-on care than older children. Courts also look at the bond between the child and the parent when evaluating child custody options and deciding what would be in the child's best interests. In addition, when children are young, judges frequently defer to the parent who has been the primary caregiver in the child’s life. Some courts will also consider the child's wishes, depending on their age.

  • Safety. This factor is always top of mind in family court, and judges will readily deny custody in cases where they believe the child's safety would be compromised.

  • Impact of changing the existing routine. When considering a change, the courts also try to determine how that change would affect the child. Generally, judges try to limit changes that would have a negative impact.

Show the Court That You Have Your Child's Best Interests At Heart, Too

You can show the judge that you have your child's best interests at heart by showing that you have been actively involved in his or her life and have provided attentive and loving care. You can demonstrate this by showing that you have enrolled your child in school, are involved in his or her education and upbringing, have participated in extracurricular activities, and have made other parenting decisions demonstrating an interest in nurturing your child. In cases where both parents are involved, the judge may also consider whether one parent is more willing to foster a loving relationship with the other parent, so working to rebuild trust with your ex can also help to demonstrate your intentions.

What situations are generally considered not in a child's best interests?

Judges strongly favor keeping a child in an arrangement that the child is familiar with, such as allowing a child to remain in the same school or neighborhood. Toward that end, judges generally do not favor an arrangement in which one parent is denied access to the child or where visitation would be difficult. Even in cases where one parent is granted sole physical custody, the other parent usually has the right to visitation. This is because child custody laws in most states favor custody arrangements that allow both parents to maintain a close and loving relationship with their child.

When is moving in the best interests of the child?

Relocating may or may not be in your child’s best interest. For example, the judge will typically deny a request to move if he or she believes the parent making the request is trying to deny or limit the other parent's access. However, moving may be in the best interest if the move allows a child to attend a better school, provides access to child care or a support system, or would benefit the child in some other way that can be demonstrated in court.

Finally, remember that the court is looking at your child holistically. They don't just consider whether you're a fit parent. When determining custody, they also aim to keep all other aspects of the child's life consistent while ensuring that both parents have the opportunity be an active part of the child's life.

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