5 Factors That Affect Child Custody Decisions
Many separated parents wonder whether they can complete the child custody process on their own through trial and error. Despite their best efforts, it almost never works out. Census data shows that child custody rights are established by the court nearly 88% of the time.
The idea of custody courts inserting themselves into your home life may sound overwhelming. After all, who knows your family better than you? But child custody courts aren’t interested in pitting one parent against another; they’re interested in upholding your children’s best interests.
Are you about to go in front of a judge? Keep reading to learn what things judges look for in a child custody case.
5 Things Courts Look for in Child Custody Cases
Beyond fundamental child custody rights, there are no hard and fast rules in child custody because every custody case is different and each state has different statutes governing custody issues.
Moreover, no court wants to force a child into a poor custody arrangement.
Instead of consulting legislation or a rigid checklist, a custody court will consider a range of characteristics that point towards the right custody agreement for the child and the family.
You’ll see a theme throughout these characteristics: the child. The child or children involved remain at the center of the process because their overall well-being is what’s most important to the judge.
Here are five of the most heavily-weighted factors in a child custody case:
1. What the Child Wants
A child’s custody preferences are almost always considered in the proceeding. Though, no laws currently regulate how the judge should weigh the child’s choice.
Judges take great care in ensuring the child’s preference is truly what they want. In some states and cases, a judge may interview the child privately to get to know their thoughts and feelings on custody. These meetings are formal, but judges use informal conversation to gain their trust and read their whole reaction (verbal and non-verbal) to the question.
In some cases, a custody evaluator takes over the process.
Children’s opinions tend to carry more weight when they’re older. A six-year-old child’s opinion, while valued, is likely to factor less in the decision than that of a 16-year-old.
2. Parent-Child Relationships
Not all parent-child relationships are straightforward. A custody case aims to keep the child with the parent they already spend the most time with and with whom they may have the most profound bond.
A judge may ask parents questions like:
- What is your child’s favorite food, book, program, activity, etc.?
- How has the child reacted to the divorce? How will you support them after the divorce?
- Do you feel your bond with your child is stronger than your spouses?
- How would your child describe the ways you demonstrate love for them?
- Who is the child more likely to come to with a problem? A triumph?
Other essential questions may revolve around daily routines:
- Who does the cooking?
- Who makes sure hygiene chores are done?
- Who stays home from work on sick days and why?
- Who is most involved in the child’s formal education?
- Who spends the most time socializing the child, teaching them manners, etc.?
- Who puts the child to bed?
Courts prefer to avoid upending a child’s daily routine more than necessary, so questions about daily rituals may be more important than they initially seem.
3. Parents’ Health
Parental health becomes a major factor when one or both parents find themselves physically or mentally unwell. An illness may impact a parent’s ability to care for a child full-time and issues associated with illness may impact the stability of the household.
Short or long-term mental health issues will play a role in custody decisions because states consider mental health to impact the best interests of the child. Mental health issues aren’t written off. Instead, a judge thinks about the health issue in combination with parenting capacity, parenting skills, and the overall parent-child relationship.
A mental illness won’t disqualify a parent from custody. Instead, judges consider all the evidence and then determine whether a mental illness damages a child’s best interests.
4. Parental Preference
Courts don’t want to place children in a situation where they have only one parent most of the time. Two parent agreements are preferable. That being said, not all parents want to participate equally, and one parent may prefer that the other parent is kept away.
Courts want to know about a proposed custody or visitation schedule and whether both parties find it agreeable before granting a custody order.
5. Parental Employment
Parental employment is weighed in several ways because while employment often means better financial ability to care for the child, it also means spending time apart from the child.
A court may consider whether each parent is:
- In full or part-time employment
- Location of employment/commuting time
- Benefits (insurance, paid time off, etc.)
Merely being an earner doesn’t qualify or disqualify a parent from their custody preferences on its own. As with all other factors, judges consider employment among all the evidence to produce a balanced decision centered on the best interests of the child.
A Few Other Factors Impacting Child Custody
The five factors listed above are some of the most heavily weighted in the decision. But other factors are considered including:
- Criminal records
- History of substance abuse
- History of child neglect
- History of domestic violence
- One parent’s desire to move the children away from another parent
- Child’s relationships with extended family, school, and community
Other factors may also be considered. Your family lawyer will highlight everything about your case that a judge may weigh in their decision.
Judges Want Quality and Consistency for Children
Gone are the days where mothers received priority above all else in child custody cases. Custody courts now prioritize the quality of parenting and maintaining consistency for children in their purview.
A judge weighs all the factors equally to find the best solution for a child. But sometimes parents need help highlighting what they bring to the table. If you’re about to go through a child custody case, you may need a family law attorney’s help.
Click here to search for a potential advocate in your area.