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What are the “Best Interests of the Child” – and Who Decides?

In child custody cases, courts typically rely on the notion of “the best interests of the child,” sometimes known as the best interests standard. But what are a child’s best interests, and who gets to decide how they will be met? The short answer is that judges make decisions in divorce cases based on this standard, and do so by considering a number of factors as prescribed by state law. That which they consider varies from state to state. Here is how the best interests standard is generally applied in the state of Florida.

Determining and Applying the Best Interests of the Child Standard

First, judges assess every situation as an individual case. This means that despite rumors that gender can influence custody decisions, Floridian spouses begin with an assumption of equal right to custody (though that assumption is, of course, later swayed by factors like parenting and those prescribed by law). Florida law recognizes that in most cases, the best interests of the child include keeping in frequent contact with both parents and in ensuring that both parents are able to partake in decision-making regarding the child’s future. Therefore, any deliberation by a judge with regards to custody agreements will tend to favor some sort of shared cooperation and shared parental responsibility.

To balance the parental responsibility and right to custody across the spouses, then, judges consider first issues of health and safety. Health and safety are the most heavily weighted factors in making a custody decision in Florida, and judges will override their preference for shared custody if necessary to protect the child. Judges will consider evidence of domestic, sexual, child, mental, physical, and substance abuse, as well as the presence of other dangerous elements, and will avoid awarding custody to a spouse if doing so would be counter to the best interests of the child’s welfare. Moral fitness, as well, is assessed; judges will consider whether spouses are engaging in frequent casual relations with multiple romantic partners, whether one spouse was previously adulterous, and other factors the judge deems to be in the ethical best interests of the child.

Additionally, the best interests of the child in Florida include the meeting of the child’s emotional and developmental needs. The judges will consider evidence of this in the form of whether the parents participate in the child’s education and healthcare, the parenting habits and styles of each spouse (as previously mentioned), and whether one spouse was previously experienced with parenting the child successfully more so than the other. Judges tend to be invested in fully exploring these issues- courts have been known to evaluate the consistency of discipline, homework schedules, meals, and bedtime as functions of the best interests of the child.

An Attorney Can Help You

Essentially, the best interests of the child in Florida allow judges wide latitude to investigate, evaluate, and then promote or discourage behavior of the spouses as it could affect the child or children. Based on this assessment, a judge may order a shared parenting plan (a written plan is required in Florida), sole legal custody given to one parent, visitation rights, or a combination of these. If you are involved in a custody dispute, it is important to be sure your legal counsel can effectively protect your rights and interests. Contact Schwartz l White in Boca Raton at 561-391-9943 today for a consultation.

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