What Does the Child’s “Best Interest Standard” Mean in a Custody Case?

Child custody is often the most important part of a divorce case. In California, two parents can create child custody and parental responsibility plans on their own without court intervention. If the parents cannot agree on the terms of custody, however, a judge will make the decision based on the best interests of the child. Almost all family courts in the country use the child’s best interest standard on child custody matters.

Meeting a Child’s Needs During Divorce

The child’s best interest standard in a custody case means what would be best for the child based on his or her unique needs. During a divorce case, a child has care and support needs, financially and emotionally. A judge will analyze these needs and make a custody decision according to what living arrangement would fulfill them best. Most courts agree that it is generally in a child’s best interest to continue contact with both parents. They often try, therefore, to create an arrangement that includes both parents.

  • Physical vs. legal custody. Physical custody refers to the child living with the parent, while legal custody is the right to make important decisions for the child. In most cases, both parents retain legal custody of a child and either split physical custody or give it solely to one parent. However, the courts may give each parent different responsibilities in unique cases.
  • Joint custody. Joint custody means both parents share time spent living with the child. A joint custody arrangement may divide parenting time down the middle, but more commonly will have the child staying more often with one parent than the other. It is often not practical to have a perfect 50/50 custody split.
  • Sole custody. If one parent receives sole custody, the child will only live with that parent. Sole custody with visitation means the other parent retains the right to visit the child, but the child will not spend the night with the noncustodial parent. Sole custody without visitation means the noncustodial parent does not have the right to visit the child.

A custody arrangement can impact a child’s development in many ways. A judge will ultimately make a custody decision to foster the child’s safety, security, mental health, healthy development and happiness. If it is possible to have a healthy and loving relationship with both parents after a divorce, the judge will create a custody arrangement that includes both parents. Otherwise, the custody dispute could end with one parent receiving sole physical and legal custody.

Factors Involved in a Custody Decision

Coming up with the best custody arrangement for a child takes carefully reviewing each family on a case-by-case basis. Judges take custody decisions very seriously and may take weeks to conclude what the healthiest situation for the child may be post-divorce. A judge will consider several different factors while creating a custody plan that will fulfill the child’s mental, emotional and financial needs.

  • The child’s wishes (if old enough)
  • The child’s age
  • The child’s special needs, if any
  • Evidence of each parent’s ability to take care of children
  • The ability of a parent to financially care for the child
  • Parents’ physical and mental health
  • A parent’s history of domestic violence or substance abuse
  • The child’s existing routine
  • The child’s adjustments to the community and school
  • Home environments
  • Relationships with members of the household

While a judge may analyze many specific factors in determining child custody, the decision will ultimately come down to what arrangement fulfills the child’s best interests. A judge will grant custody and/or visitation according to what will best meet the child’s needs. In a court case, each parent will make a case for why his or her desired arrangement will be in the child’s best interests and a judge will make the final decision. In a divorce settlement, the parents will create their own parenting plan and a judge will sign off on it after confirming that it conforms to the child’s best interest standard.