The best interests of the child doctrine is the basis for all custody and visitation issues and may impact other parts of the divorce agreement. Generally speaking, the courts use the best interests of the child doctrine when making decisions. Divorce attorneys will also try to follow this doctrine when negotiating parenting plans or other matters related to the children. This is as it should be – parents’ priority should be the children despite the marriage coming to an end. However, parents may disagree (sometimes adamantly so) on what is best for the children. It can lead to litigation in court.
Determining the best interests
Co-parenting or joint custody is not always appropriate, but frequent and ongoing contact with both parents is usually best for the child. The courts will often weigh the following factors when making decisions:
- The wishes of parents
- The wishes of the child if they are old enough to express reasoned preferences
- The child’s relationship with each parent, siblings and other important figures
- Minimizing the child’s post-divorce adjustment to his home, school or community
- The mental health of the parents
- The parents’ abilities to be actively engaged (some parents need to be realistic about balancing work and family or make changes)
- The parents’ past involvement and whether it was positive and healthy
- The physical proximity of the coparents’ residences
Except for prioritizing child safety above all else, a judge will often holistically consider the above as well as issues specific to the family.
Custody battles are not the goal
There is no “winning” a custody battle. Parents may have differing viewpoints. Nonetheless, the goal should be to find a workable solution that addresses the needs of the child. At the same time, each parent has certain legal rights and obligations they need to meet. The child’s needs come first, but solutions need to work for the entire family.