Family Law

The 'Best Interests' of the Child Standard

Child custody decisions can be based on what is in the best interests of the child. This article should help give an understanding of what “child’s best interest” or “best interests of the child” means in family law.​ However, because child custody issues are so fact specific, it is always best to speak with an experienced child custody attorney about your situation.

What Is  the “Best Interest” of the Child Standard?

If you find yourself in family court regarding child custody issues, such as legal custody or physical custody, which is also known as parenting time, parenting schedule, or visitation, you will hear the term “child’s best interest” or “best interest of the child.” In family law, these terms can have a  hard-to-define meaning. 

Best Interests of the Child Standard in Child Custody

You probably guessed that the best interest of the child standard broadly deals with the well-being of the child or children in a custody dispute after divorce. The exact meaning will depend on the individual child and parents’ situation. A family court judge will look at certain factors when considering a custody arrangement, including:

  • Child’s age and developmental needs—are both parents able to meet those needs
  • Child’s safety while in the care of both parents
  • Child’s preference or child’s wishes (generally, minor children do NOT get to make the decision, it is merely one factor a judge will consider)
  • Home environment of both parents
  • Schedules of the parents
  • Schedules of the minor children
  • The parent-child relationship between the child and each parent
  • The parent’s ability to communicate and co-parent with the other
  • Special needs of the child 

These are the primary considerations but other relevant factors could include the physical health of the parents and whether they can carry out their parental responsibilities. A court has to be very careful so as not to improperly deny a parent their parental rights based on a disability. 

It’s also crucial to understand the difference between legal custody and physical custody, or parenting time. For example, a parent who may have physical limitations which could prevent them from caring for a young child for an extended period does not necessarily mean that the parent is not able to have joint legal custody. It may mean that the family court awards that parent with a parenting time schedule with fewer consecutive days with the child at a time to accommodate their health needs. 

A court may also take into consideration a parent’s mental health. While mental health is not a reason to not award joint legal custody or even joint physical custody, it could be a factor if a parent is not properly addressing their mental health which puts the child at risk of harm.

If one parent has substance abuse problems, that may affect that parent’s ability to properly care for their child. The court may award sole custody to the other parent and award limited visitation rights to the affected parent, and visitation may be limited to supervised visitation where a supervisor must be present during the visit.

If a parent is a domestic violence perpetrator and the domestic violence affects the child, or the child was also abused, that parent’s custody and visitation rights will be affected.

Many of these same factors will also be used when a court is asked to finalize an adoption. For example, if a couple seeking to adopt, the family court is going to look at the couple as a unit rather than deciding which parent may be the better choice to make decisions or have more time with the child.

Best Interests of a Child Standard in Child Support

The best interests of a child standard changes a bit when courts look at awarding child support. Generally, the theory behind child support is that a child should not be financially disadvantaged simply because their parents are no longer in a relationship. Each parent should  financially care for their child. This means ensuring the child has stable housing, clothes, food, and other necessities of life. 

All states have a formula used to calculate child support and that formula should also include the cost of medical insurance. Many states also provide for child support to include in other costs for their child such as:

  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Extraordinary medical expenses, like co-pays or deductibles that medical insurance does not cover
  • Child care costs such as daycare or after-school care or third-party caregivers such as a babysitter or even extended family member paid to provide care

If the parents’ gross incomes exceed the guideline amount, a court may also take into account the child’s standard of living from when the parents were together. This could include private schools, costs of clothing, and special activities.

Was this helpful?