Family Law

The Child's Best Interests in Custody Arrangements

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
How a court decides custody arrangements for your child.

Talk to a Local Child Custody Attorney

What are a Child’s Best Interests?

Divorcing parents can get caught in a tug-of-war over custody. In cases where parents can’t agree, a judge will create a custody arrangement based on the evidence presented, including any expert opinions. The goal is to determine what will serve the child’s needs or best interests and set up a custody situation that will foster a child’s happiness, safety, security, and growth.

Most of the time, children benefit by maintaining a close relationship with both parents. However, in cases where the parents live far apart or their relationship is tenuous, joint or shared custody might not be possible. Also, any history of abusive behavior toward the child may result in limited visitation or even a loss of parental rights.

A court will use different factors—depending on state law—to assess a child’s best interests. While the rules may vary in your particular state, judges will generally consider the following when making custody decisions:

  • each parent’s physical and mental health
  • each parent’s emotional stability
  • each parent’s relationship with the child
  • each parent’s education and work skills
  • each parent’s living situation and ability to provide a room for the child
  • the child’s bond and emotional ties to each parent
  • the child’s special needs
  • the child’s current living situation and contact with each parent
  • the child’s relationship with extended family members
  • each parent’s current employment and earning capacity
  • each parent’s motives for seeking custody
  • each parent’s financial situation
  • either parent’s history of domestic violence or child abuse
  • the child’s preference—if the child is of a sufficient age and maturity
  • recommendations from expert witnesses, custody evaluators, or psychologists
  • each parent’s willingness to allow the child to have a meaningful relationship with the other parent, and
  • each parent’s ability to provide for the child’s emotional, physical, educational, and social needs.

A judge may also consider other relevant conditions or circumstances in your custody case. For example, a court may look at where each parent lives, the local school system, the parent’s access to quality medical care, or the parent and child’s ties to the community.

What Does a Typical Custody Arrangement Look Like?

A custody order will contain a visitation schedule that spells out when and where the child will spend time with each parent. Your plan should be tailored to your family's unique circumstances. Some parents split custody of their kids, meaning the child spends 4 days at one parent’s home and then 3 days at the other parent’s home. Other orders allow the noncustodial parent (parent with less custodial time) to visit one weeknight per week and every other weekend. In situations where parents live in different states, the noncustodial parent may have visitation just one weekend a month during the school year and continuous visitation during the summer months, when children are out of school. The variations in custody agreements are endless.

In addition to defining which parent has primary legal and physical custody and providing a general visitation schedule, your custody order should also address holidays. For example, your custody plan should define which parent gets to spend specific holidays like Christmas, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Father’s Day with the child year over year. Finally, your custody order should delineate each parent’s responsibility for transportation and the costs associated with visitation. This is especially important if you and your child’s other parent live far away.

Will a Change in My Child’s Needs Affect Custody?

A child’s best interests can change over time. Although children’s basic needs for safety, shelter, clothing, and food remain fairly constant over the years, their individual medical needs, academic goals, and emotional challenges can change as they get older. Generally, a court won’t modify a custody order unless a significant amount of time has passed since the original order was issued or there has been a material change in circumstances.

A "material change" in circumstances is something major, which is likely to continue. For example, a child’s recent medical diagnosis, major school struggles, or severe bullying may warrant a change in custody to better serve a child’s best interests. Although the custodial parent may not have done anything wrong, a court can decide that the child’s needs would be better served by moving in with the other parent.

If you have questions about custody arrangements, you should contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Will my upcoming remarriage affect custody?
  • I’m in the middle of a divorce and was recently offered a job in another state. If I take the job, how will this affect the court's custody decision?
  • I just started dating someone who has sole physical custody of her 4 kids. How will this relationship affect my chances of getting sole custody of my 3 children?

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