The determination of Child Custody and parenting time can be one of the most sensitive aspects of a divorce, paternity or separate support proceeding. If the parties cannot agree upon an appropriate custodial arrangement and parenting schedule, the Judge will make the determination based on the “best interest of the child.”
The determination of the best interest of the child is left to the discretion of the Judge.
Below are some of the general factors that courts considers when determining the best interest of the child:
- The age of the children: The appropriateness of certain parenting plans is often dependent on the age of the children. With young children, long stretches of time away from either parent may not be in the child’s best interest.
- The substantial bond between the child and the parent: Assuming that both parents are “fit” to parent the children, the Judge will likely deem it appropriate to implement a parenting plan that allows both parents consistent, quality parenting time with the children so that the parent/child bond can remain as strong as possible.
- The living situation of each parent: In fashioning an appropriate parenting plan, Judges tend to favor plans that promote stability in the children’s lives. If possible, the Judge will likely favor a parenting plan that is the least disruptive to the children’s lives, but also allows appropriate parenting time for each parent.
- Each parent’s willingness to support the other’s relationship with the children: It is important that parents overcome their personal emotions towards each other and work together for the benefit of the children. The judge will be interested as to each parent’s willingness to cooperate with the other parent in regards to child-related issues. A Judge will not look favorably upon a parent who disparages the other parent, especially in ear-shot of the children. In the event that the Judge feels that the parents are unable to successfully co-parent, the Judge may award sole legal custody to one parent.
- Children’s preferences: With older children, Judge may consider the children’s opinion with regards to custody and parenting time. The children’s opinion/preference is usually reported to the Court by a Guardian ad Litem; however, it is important to remember that the children’s preference may not be determinative. The Judge will still complete the “best interest of the child” analysis while fashioning the parenting plan.