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The Best Interests of the Child: What Is (and Is Not) Included

In the state of Florida, child custody determinations are made according to the best interests of the child.  But what are the best interests of the child?  Given that these interests can vary on a case-by-case basis and that reasonable minds can differ regarding what most benefits a given child, the standard can be somewhat slippery.

Generally, the best interests of the child are served by planning and agreement between the parents, stability and continuity with regards to living environments, standard of living, and contact with parents, arranging care such that those providing it prioritize loving and appropriate childrearing, avoiding conflict and violence, and developing a system so that decisions regarding raising the children are made both jointly and expediently.  The state of Florida generally considers these factors, as well as most other states, and they largely conform to the definitions provided by the American Law Institute, an organization that works to clarify, modernize, and improve the law.  But if one is looking for more specificity in what the best interests of the child standard denotes, it may be useful to consider that which is not included in the assessment.

Race

The United States Supreme Court in Palmore v. Sidoti in 1984 held, among other principles, that courts cannot use race as the sole or decisive factor in awarding child custody and must instead perform a more complex analysis including the qualifications of both parents and the needs of the child.  The court did stop short of holding that race cannot be used as a factor at all, and various states have correspondingly held that race can be one of many factors in conducting custody analysis.

Ability and Disability

Courts in awarding custody must examine the mental and physical health of both the child and the parents in order to protect the health and safety of everyone involved and to properly consider how and whether children will be in a stable environment.  That said, when a parent or child has a disability of any kind, evaluation of its effect on the child and on the custody agreement is made on a case-by-case basis.  This case-by-case determination is also used when a child has a disability that requires extensive care.

Religion

Courts are prohibited from favoring one religion over another in custody agreements, though, unfortunately, biases (unconscious or not) can slip in.  Courts will look at religion of the parents in an effort to evaluate whether it will affect the quality of life and care that the children will receive in each of the potential households, and may also, depending on the age of the child, consider which religion, if any, the child desires to practice.  Other state courts have stated that religious beliefs of the parents are only relevant as far as they affect the best interests of the child, and utilize that standard in determining how much, if any, consideration of the parents’ beliefs is relevant.

Are you involved in a custody determination or dispute?  Making custody decisions and coming to an agreement can be emotional and stressful, but a qualified attorney can help.  At Schwartz | White in Boca Raton, our experienced family law attorneys can assist you and your family in protecting the best interests of the children while protecting the rights of the parents. Call 561-391-9943 today for a consultation.

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