When the court is needed to decide which parent will have custody, there are many factors that are considered. The factor that always takes precedence over any other is what is in the children’s best interest.
Although the determining factors as to what exactly constitutes the children’s best interest varies from state to state, there are some common considerations that are always looked at in helping to make this decision, including:
- The mental and physical health of the parents;
- Religious and/or cultural considerations;
- The need for the continuation of a stable home environment;
- The continued opportunity to spend time with members of the extended families of both parents;
- Interaction and interrelationship with other members of household;
- The possibility of readjusting to a new school and/or neighborhood;
- Either parent’s use of excessive discipline and/or emotional abuse; and
- Any evidence of either parent abusing drugs or alcohol.
When the children’s best interest cannot be easily determined (a common occurrence), the courts then take into consideration which parent has been the children’s “primary caretaker”. Being a primary caretaker means that you have spent the majority of the time taking care of the children (for example, being a stay at home mom or dad would carry considerable weight for the decision).
In order to determine which parent has been the children’s primary caretaker, the courts tend to focus more on the day-to-day responsibilities of taking care of the children, such as:
- Helping with personal grooming, such as bathing, dressing and dental hygiene;
- Responsibility for the children’s eating habits and meal preparation;
- Taking care of the children’s health, including doctor’s appointments;
- Encouraging the children’s participation in extracurricular activities; and
- Developing the children’s reading, writing and math skills, along with other education.
Should it become apparent while looking at all the factors that both parents are equally sharing parenting responsibilities, the courts will once again try to determine the children’s best interest.
If the children are of sufficient age to make their own decisions, the courts will take their preference into account in making a custody decision. The court will listen closely to the children’s stated preference and his or her reasons. The children do not have the final say in which parent will be granted physical custody, however, and it will be the court’s decision just how much consideration will be given to the children’s wishes. The amount of consideration given will depend on age, maturity and the quality of the children’s reasons.