What Are The “Best Interests Of The Child?”
The phrase “Best Interests of the Child” is probably the single most important legal standard in any family law proceeding that involves a child. In any custody related matter, “best interests of the child” is the legal standard that is employed by the Judge in practically all determinations that are made concerning the child, and particularly as it relates to parental responsibility and timesharing.
Generally speaking, in accordance with the public policy of our state, it is considered in the best interests of the child to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents, and most of the time, shared parental responsibility is appropriate (unless it can be affirmatively proven that it would be harmful to the child). However, when parents have gone through a volatile and contentious breakup, putting aside personal feelings of anger and animosity in order to come to an agreement on issues of parental responsibility and timesharing may be easier said than done. For whatever the reason, if the parents are unable to work together to come to an agreement on matters such as parental responsibility and timesharing, then the Judge will take over and make those determinations for the parents based upon the evidence that each parent presents. When considering all of the evidence, the Judge’s paramount focus always will be on what is in the best interests of the child versus the parent’s personal desires.
How Does the Court Make That Determination?
“Best Interests of the Child” is a subjective legal standard, which means that it is factually driven. Therefore, each case can be very different from the next. However, Section 61.13, Florida Statutes provides the Judge with a lengthy list of factors that he/she must consider, and the Judge applies those factors to the evidence presented by both parents when making best interests determinations. The statutory factors are as follows:
(a) The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship, to honor the time-sharing schedule, and to be reasonable when changes are required.
(b) The anticipated division of parental responsibilities after the litigation, including the extent to which parental responsibilities will be delegated to third parties.
(c) The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to determine, consider, and act upon the needs of the child as opposed to the needs or desires of the parent.
(d) The length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity.
(e) The geographic viability of the parenting plan, with special attention paid to the needs of school-age children and the amount of time to be spent traveling to effectuate the parenting plan. This factor does not create a presumption for or against relocation of either parent with a child.
(f) The moral fitness of the parents.
(g) The mental and physical health of the parents.
(h) The home, school, and community record of the child.
(i) The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference.
(j) The demonstrated knowledge, capacity, and disposition of each parent to be informed of the circumstances of the minor child, including, but not limited to, the child’s friends, teachers, medical care providers, daily activities, and favorite things.
(k) The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to provide a consistent routine for the child, such as discipline, and daily schedules for homework, meals, and bedtime.
(l) The demonstrated capacity of each parent to communicate with and keep the other parent informed of issues and activities regarding the minor child, and the willingness of each parent to adopt a unified front on all major issues when dealing with the child.
(m) Evidence of domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, child abandonment, or child neglect, regardless of whether a prior or pending action relating to those issues has been brought. If the court accepts evidence of prior or pending actions regarding domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, child abandonment, or child neglect, the court must specifically acknowledge in writing that such evidence was considered when evaluating the best interests of the child.
(n) Evidence that either parent has knowingly provided false information to the court regarding any prior or pending action regarding domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, child abandonment, or child neglect.
(o) The particular parenting tasks customarily performed by each parent and the division of parental responsibilities before the institution of litigation and during the pending litigation, including the extent to which parenting responsibilities were undertaken by third parties.
(p) The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to participate and be involved in the child’s school and extracurricular activities.
(q) The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to maintain an environment for the child which is free from substance abuse
(r) The capacity and disposition of each parent to protect the child from the ongoing litigation as demonstrated by not discussing the litigation with the child, not sharing documents or electronic media related to the litigation with the child, and refraining from disparaging comments about the other parent to the child.
(s) The developmental stages and needs of the child and the demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to meet the child’s developmental needs.
(t) Any other factor that is relevant to the determination of a specific parenting plan, including the time-sharing schedule.
How Important Are These 20 Statutory Factors?
Application of the above 20 statutory factors to the evidence that each parent presents to the Judge is how the Judge determines what is in the child’s best interests in terms of parental responsibility and timesharing. Note that the last factor is a catchall, whereby the Judge has the discretion to consider any other factor that is relevant to the determination of a specific parenting plan, including the timesharing schedule. Therefore, the Judge has tremendous discretion in considering just about anything when it comes to making its decision as to what is in a child’s best interests. In a contested custody dispute, especially if the dispute involves any allegations by one parent against the other related to child abuse or neglect, substance abuse, moral fitness, mental and/or physical health issues, or other problems that question a parent’s fitness to make decisions or engage in timesharing, exactly what is in the best interests of the child can become a very complex and difficult case to present and/or defend, and not one that should be attempted without first consulting an experienced Tampa child custody attorney.
Alternatives to Placing the Decision with the Judge
Even if the parents could not initially agree, ALL cases are sent to mediation prior to being allowed to proceed to a final hearing. Mediation provides the parents with another opportunity to come to an agreement concerning their child’s best interests before placing that very important decision into the hands of a third party (the Judge) who only will see their lives in a very small snap shot of time. A parenting coordinator is another resource for parents who are in conflict over parental responsibility and/or timesharing. A parenting coordinator provides a child focused, alternative dispute resolution process, and who can help the parents create a workable parenting plan and timesharing schedule.
Contact A Tampa Child Custody Attorney
If you have questions about parental responsibility and/or timesharing, call The Law Office of Laura A. Olson, P.A. for more information.