What Matters in a Child Custody Case?
There are a lot of individual factors that can matter in a child custody case. For example, if one parent has a criminal record and the other doesn’t, that can be one element that weighs into the decision.
Maybe you’re co-parenting with someone who’s dating a person you don’t think is a good influence. You could do an online search of their name and find they have a record. That might matter. One parent could lack stable housing, which could be relevant.
Ultimately, the primary overarching thing that matters in these cases is what’s in the best interest of the child or children.
Judges do tend to prefer a shared custody arrangement. It’s not their goal to take away contact from a parent or guardian without a good reason.
The following are some of the ways the best interest might be decided.
The Child’s Age
Something that a lot of people don’t realize matters in child custody is the age of the child.
Judges don’t follow any set rules, but some states do have a certain age where a child has more of a decision-making role in custody. There are also general guidelines based on a child’s developmental stage.
For children between the ages of 0 and 2, the focus is on maintaining a bond between the child and each parent, with frequent visitations and limited time away from either parent.
For children who are ages 3 to 7, there’s thought to be more tolerance for separation, but still, consistency and structure are needed, as well as frequent contact between both parents.
For children ages 8 to 11, many family judges will view it as a time when spending more time with one parent than another might be a good fit depending on things like activities and the preference of the child.
Once a child reaches the age of 12, judges encourage flexibility in scheduling and considering input from the child.
The Parent-Child Relationship
When a judge assesses the relationship between a parent and child, there are no hard and fast rules. Judges make evaluations of the quality of relationships a child has with each parent.
For example, some children will be very attached to one parent, and being separated from them is distressing, so the custody arrangement could favor that parent.
A family judge will try to make every effort to keep siblings together in most cases. If parents want to separate siblings in a custody agreement, they have to make a case that it’s in the best interest of the children. On the other hand, if a sibling is abusing the child, a judge might favor a custody agreement separating the kids.
Parental Mental and Physical Well-Being
A judge is going to want to put a child in a home that’s safe and caring. If one parent has mental health disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, or is extremely stressed out, that could prevent them from always acting in the best interest of their child, at least as a judge might see it.
Since judges do want children to have relationships with both parents, they might order a parent to go to counseling or therapy as part of a parenting plan.
In some cases, if there’s a question of whether a parent can safely care for a child at all, they might have to undergo mandatory drug tests and receive only monitored visitation.
Judges consider the relationships that a parent has with other adults, including sexual relationships. For example, if a parent is dating someone with a criminal past or there are sexual partners in the home when the child is, this can impact a judge’s decisions. The parenting plan might restrict contact with some people when a child is with a parent who has these questionable relationships.
If a parent has a mental health disorder, their lawyer might work with a psychologist to show that it won’t have an adverse effect on their ability to parent or their child’s well-being.
Physical illness or disability can be considered as unfair as it might seem to some.
If one parent has a debilitating disease, it could theoretically make it harder for them to care for their child. If the parent with the disease or health issue has a strong family support system, that could help their case.
Judges consider whether each parent is likely to follow a parenting plan, and income is considered.
Family support such as grandparents who can help financially or share childcare responsibilities can boost a parent if the other doesn’t have a lot of support.
Does Custody Go to One Parent?
There’s a misconception that custody goes to just one parent. It’s much more common for parents to have joint custody.
Joint custody can occur in three ways.
Joint physical custody means that the kids spend a significant amount of time with both parents, while joint legal custody means parents share all decision-making responsibilities. Many parents also have both joint physical and legal custody.
In some states, the court has to award joint custody as the default unless doing so would negatively impact a child’s best interests.
Mediation to Come to An Agreement
Many families find that rather than have a family court judge decide their custody arrangement, mediation is a much better option for them. During this process, you work with a neutral professional called a mediator.
The mediator works with both parents to help them come to an agreement that works for each of them.
A mediator isn’t a decision-maker. They’re a negotiation facilitator, and they might offer solutions. Mediation is confidential, so if you go through the process and then end up in court, what you said can’t be used.
Mediations mean a parent doesn’t necessarily have to hire lawyers or witnesses, so it can be much cheaper. It also tends to be faster because litigation can go on for months or years. Mediation also encourages positive communication and cooperation, which can be something that sets a better tone for the co-parenting relationship compared to a highly adversarial court experience.