Family Law

How do Siblings Affect Custody Decisions?

By Melissa Heinig, Attorney
How important are sibling relationships when courts decide custody?

When divorcing parents discuss potential custody arrangements, they often assume that all their children will live with the same parent. Although it’s most common for children to live in the same home, there are some circumstances when it may not be the case. Siblings support each other during divorce and custody cases, and their relationship will be an important consideration during custody hearings.

Custody Basics

Each state has its own process for deciding custody, but all family law courts will consider what’s in the children’s best interest. Judges prefer for parents to work together to form the best custody arrangement for their family, especially the children. If parents can’t agree, they will have to ask a judge to help make the decision. Most states, like Michigan, have a specific set of factors—called best interest factors—that a judge must evaluate to decide any custody matter. Each factor is important and may include:

  • each parents’ and child’s opinion
  • the children’s relationships with their siblings
  • which parent can provide the best home for the children, and
  • whether there has been a history of domestic violence in the family.

There are two types of custody:

  • legal custody, and
  • physical custody.

Legal custody refers to a parent's right to make decisions about the child’s education, religion, medical needs, and general welfare. Physical custody generally refers to where a child will live. Parents may have sole custody or share joint custody of the children. If one parent has sole physical custody, the other parent (noncustodial parent) will have parenting time (visitation) with the children.

Sibling Relationships

As difficult as divorce is on parents, it’s often more emotional for the children. To get through the ups and downs of this time, children may lean on their siblings for support, comfort, and care. A child’s relationship with their siblings plays an important role in custody evaluations, and courts will rarely separate siblings. For example, in South Carolina, the law says that judges should only consider separating siblings—called split-custody— in extreme circumstances.

If a judge awards split-custody, it’s important that parents and the court work together to ensure that each child can spend time with their siblings and the other parent on a regular basis.

Extreme Circumstances

Contrary to popular belief, custody isn’t just about what the parents want, so a judge will rarely separate siblings because it’s best for the parents. However, if it’s in the children’s best interest for them to live with different parents, it may happen.

A Child’s Preference

Sometimes a child’s preference will persuade a judge to allow the child to live with a specific parent. Although a child's opinion is only one factor that a court will consider, if the child is older and identifies more with one parent over the other, a judge may award custody to that parent. For example, if a child is 17 years-old, has a close and bonded relationship with her mother, and the child tells the court she wants to live with her mother, a court may allow it.

Safety and Special Needs

Split-custody may also be appropriate if a child’s safety is in jeopardy, or a child has special needs. All families experience some type of sibling rivalry, but if there is a history of fighting, or abuse between siblings, separating the children may be the best outcome. Additionally, if a child has specific special needs, either physically or mentally, it may be best for one parent to be able to devote all their time to one child, instead of multiple children.

Relocation

In some cases, one parent may relocate to another state after a divorce. Relocation may occur if the parent has a new job or educational opportunity. If a child has a strong social network, or is involved in sports and other social activities, it may be in that child’s best interest to remain with the parent who doesn’t relocate. However, some children will benefit from a change in location, so it may be beneficial for that child to relocate with their parent.

Divorce and custody are complicated and emotionally challenging issues. If you're dealing with divorce or custody issues, and you have questions about how sibling relationships may affect your case, contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.

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