Divorce is always a stressful process, to some extent. For parents with minor children, divorce can be particularly challenging, especially when it comes to making decisions about child custody. Ideally, couples are able to set aside any differences and hurt feelings they may have toward one another and work together to come up with a mutually acceptable child custody arrangement for their children. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.
In cases where parents cannot agree on child custody matters, a determination has to be made by a family court judge. Having the decision taken out of their hands can be difficult for parents, but it is sometimes the only way to move forward. One important point to understand, though, is that child custody determinations are not primarily about the parents, but about the best interests of the child.
"Best interests of the child" is a general term that refers to the constellation of factors affecting the welfare of the child. Different states have slightly different approaches to these factors, though the general approach is relatively similar. In Maryland, courts have cited a number of different factors as the basis for child custody decisions. These factors include:
- Fitness of the parents
- Material advantages and opportunities each parent may offer
- Character and reputation of the parents
- Age, health, and sex of the child
- Length of time the child may have been separated from natural parents
- Desires of the natural parents and the child
In cases where joint custody is proposed, courts take into account additional factors, including:
- Capacity of the parents to cooperate in joint decisions about the child's welfare
- Geographic proximity of the parents' residences
- Demands of parental employment
- Potential disruption to the child's social and school life
Florida law enumerates similar factors in its child custody statute:
- Mental and physical health of the parents
- Mental, physical and developmental needs of the child
- Demonstrated capacity and disposition of the parents to meet the needs of the child
- Demonstrated capacity and disposition of the parents to provide a child with a consistent routine
- Amount of time the child has lived in a stable environment and the desirability of maintain continuity
- Child's connection to the home, school and community in which he or she has been living
- Ability and willingness of each parent to facilitate and encourage a positive, ongoing relationship with the other parent and to cooperate in the parent-time schedule
- Ability and willingness of each parent to keep the other parent informed of issues and activities in the child's life, and to work together in handling major issues
- History of abuse, including domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse
As can be seen, some best interests factors relate more to the parents themselves, and some relate more to the child. Courts may ultimately take into consideration any relevant factor when determining whether a proposed child custody arrangement is in the best interests of the child.
Although child custody is ultimately about the best interests of the child, the interests of the parents and the child are ordinarily tied together quite closely. In our next post, we'll say more about this point and the importance of working with experienced legal counsel in the child custody process.