What is the “Best Interests of the Child” Standard?
Put bluntly, divorcing your spouse or leaving your significant other is an emotional nightmare. When children are involved, however, the process becomes that much more difficult. Having an experienced Matrimonial or Family Law attorney by your side to help you understand what the Court looks for when making custody determinations before you begin the process is a must.
Whether litigation custody before a Supreme Court Justice in your Divorce proceeding or before a Family Court Jude, the overriding focus in any custody case begins and ends with the child’s “best interests.” This term has a particular meaning in family law when making arrangements for children.
The Child’s Best Interests in Custody Cases
In the context of child custody cases, focusing on the child’s “best interests” means that all custody and visitation discussions and decisions are made with the ultimate goal of fostering and encouraging the child’s happiness, security, mental health, and emotional development into young adulthood. Generally speaking, it’s often in the child’s best interests to maintain a close and loving relationship with both parents, but the practicalities of promoting and maintaining such relationships can be the main challenge in resolving a child custody dispute.
In any custody conflict it’s crucial that you not lose sight of the importance of making decisions in the best interests of your children. The choices you make now (or the decisions a court makes for you) will affect your child’s development, as well as your relationship with them, in a number of crucial ways for years to come.
What Factors Determine the Child’s Best Interests?
Although the best interests standard can be hard to define in some situations, there are some common factors that are part of this analysis in most custody situations, such as the following:
- The pre-existing custodial arrangement (i.e. who is the primary caretaker of the child);
- The wishes of the child (if old enough to capably express a reasonable preference);
- The mental and physical health of the parents;
- Any special needs a child may have and how each parent takes care of those needs;
- Religious and/or cultural considerations;
- The need for continuation of stable home environment;
- Other children whose custody is relevant to this child’s custody arrangement;
- Support and opportunity for interaction with members of the extended family of either parent (such as grandparents);
- Interactions and interrelationships with other members of household;
- Adjustments to school and community;
- The age of the child;
- the overall quality of each parent’s home environment;
- Whether there is a pattern of domestic violence in the home;
- Parental use of excessive discipline or emotional abuse; and
- Evidence of parental drug, alcohol or child abuse
Remember, courts don’t just look at one factor, but instead take a more holistic approach. Their best interests determinations are generally made after considering a number of factors related to the child’s circumstances and the parent or caregiver’s circumstances and capacity to parent, with the child’s ultimate safety and happiness being the paramount concern.
How Do You Determine Custody When Both Parents Are Good Parents?
In addition to the foregoing, and arguably one of the most important factors, is whether a parent actually fosters a relationship between the child and the other parent. I cannot stress to you enough how important this factor is. Generally, both parents are more or less “fit” parents, meaning that they can care for the child and provide a stable home environment. Thus, you may be ask yourself, “what then?” “What goes into a Court’s custody determination if both parents are good parents? ”
This questions was answered by Judge Conrad Singer of the Nassau County Family Court in Matter of T.G. v V.Z. 2019 NY Slip Op 50210(U) (Fam. Ct., Nassau Cty. 2019) and affirmed by the Appellate Division, Second Department in Matter of Golban v Zalmanov, 178 A.D.3d 1037 (2d Dept, 2019):
Overall, the Court finds that factor of “relative fitness” as a parent weighs equally in both parents’ favor. While the Court finds no reason to doubt the mother’s testimony that before the underlying litigation she was the child’s primary caretaker and was primarily responsible for feeding and bathing her, the Court further finds that the mother failed to introduce any competent evidence demonstrating that the father is not equally fit to take care of the child. The Court finds that the testimony from the mother and her sister J. about the father’s alleged physical abuse of the mother was incredible, as was testimony from the mother’s son D. that the father “beat” D. on a weekly basis. Moreover, if D.’s testimony was true, and the mother knew that the father was regularly “beating” D. to such extent as to occasionally leave bruises but took no substantive action beyond “arguing” with the father, then such conduct on the mother’s part calls into question her parental judgment as far as protecting her child’s safety and welfare.
Rather than find that the father is “less fit” to parent the child, the evidence demonstrates that the child is clean, healthy and relatively well-fed while in the father’s care. The Court is not troubled by the fact that the father, like many fulltime working parents, relies on a third party to prepare food for the child. The evidence further demonstrates that both parties love and nurture the child and desire to promote the child’s intellectual and physical well-being, including by encouraging the child’s involvement in extracurricular activities such as ice skating and swimming and working on the child’s English language skills. Overall, the Court finds that the evidence does not indicate that one parent is superior to the other as to their “relative fitness” as a parent.
The Court then went on to highlight the mother’s inability to foster a relationship between the child and the father (our client) as one of the critical factors in awarding father sole legal and residential custody:
However, overall, the Court finds that the father has demonstrated greater flexibility and willingness to work with the mother when it comes to agreeing upon parenting time arrangements. The Court notes the testimony from both parties that the mother has outright rejected past attempts from the father to agree upon alternate parenting time arrangements, including holiday and summer time parenting schedules, which parenting time the mother acknowledged on cross-examination is beneficial for the child. The Court is also troubled by the evidence that when the father made numerous requests that the mother swap parenting time to permit him to take a vacation with the child, the mother rejected each request by responding that she had already made plans for each of the proposed alternate weekends. The Court finds the mother’s proclaimed desire to rigidly adhere to court-ordered parenting time schedules particularly problematic given her demonstrated disregard for other aspects of court orders, including the directive that the child be immediately returned to the Middle Village residence. In total, the Court finds that the father is more likely to successfully foster a relationship between the child and the mother as the non-custodial parent. (Matter of Edwards v. Edwards, 161 AD3d 979 [2d Dept. 2018] (“The record demonstrates that the mother interfered with the relationship between the father and the children in a manner inconsistent with the best interests of the children, and also demonstrates that the father is more likely than the mother to foster a relationship between the children and the noncustodial parent”)].
Find the Right Attorney for Your Child Custody Case
Even though you understand what’s in the best interests of your child, ultimately the court will have the final say. The best way to both express your concerns about your child’s well-being and work within the constraints of the court system is to work with an attorney who is familiar with child custody cases . The attorneys at Barrows Levy PLLC can help you. Call us today for a free, confidential consultation. (516) 744-1880.