January 28, 2022
If you are even slightly familiar with Florida divorce law, you may have heard the term “best interests of the child.” As a parent, you are likely the person who is most familiar with your child and has their best interests at heart. However, the legal definition may vary from your’s or your child’s other parent’s definition. If you have recently sought paternity, are going through a divorce, or attempting to modify a parenting plan, you must understand the legal definition of this commonly used court term.
The Best Interests of the Child and Florida Laws
Parents and Florida family courts are required to act in the best interests of their children. Under Florida Statute Section 61.13(3), the best interest of the child needs to be the priority consideration “when establishing or modifying parental responsibility and creating, developing, approving, or modifying a parenting plan.”
Who gets to decide what is in the best interests of the child? Florida law allows family court judges to make this determination on a case-by-case basis. However, they do provide many factors for a judge to consider. Judges often use broad discretion in their decisions, which unfortunately sometimes leads to much uncertainty for parents.
Factors Family Court Judges Should Consider
Florida statute lists many factors that judges must account for when considering the best interests of a child.
- Each parent can be reasonable with changes, facilitate the child’s relationship with the other parent, and respect the court-ordered parenting schedule. The judge will assess if each parent has previously been willing to cooperate with the other parent during the separation period. Any signs of parental alienation will be seriously considered in the judge’s decision, as Florida is one state that is quick to act on these behaviors.
- Who cares for the child’s needs regularly, including helping with homework, bathing, feeding, transportation to school, etc.? Will one parent use the services of a nanny for help? If one parent is more involved in providing for these needs than the other, the court will often sway in their favor.
- The ability and likeliness of the parents to consider their child’s needs above their own needs or desires. Suppose one parent has made decisions that served their own needs and wants while failing to provide for their child. In that case, the court won’t look favorably upon them—for example, spending money to buy alcohol when there is no food left in the house for the child to eat.
- How long has the child lived in a stable environment? Is it best for them to remain in that current environment? For instance, if one parent moves into a new school district or far away from where they were previously living, is it best for that child to move or stay in the same school with the same friends or environment?
- How far apart will the parents live from each other? Will the parenting plan cause the child to spend hours in the car each week traveling between parents? Parents who live only a short distance from each other make arrangements like joint physical time-sharing easier. Whereas, if they lived quite a ways away, the judge will likely frown upon joint physical time-sharing.
- The desires of the child if the court deems them to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference.” Unfortunately, there is no blanket rule to determine when the child has “sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience.” Generally, judges won’t consider children younger than 12 or 13 to be in this category. Even if the child is older, it’s still up to the family court judge to determine if they will allow the child’s desires and opinions to impact their decision. Parents should also keep in mind that most judges prefer that children be shielded from litigation.
- How involved is each parent in the child’s life? Are they familiar with their friends, teachers, doctors, daily activities, and favorite things?
- The ability and willingness of each parent to give the child a consistent routine, including discipline and daily schedules to include mealtimes, homework, and bedtimes. In other words, will the parent act as the parent and provide consistency?
- The capacity of each parent to meet their child’s developmental needs. For example, a newborn who hasn’t yet weaned will likely need to spend much more time with its mother. If one parent is better at managing the special needs of one child, they will likely need to be with the child more often than the other.
- Will each parent keep the other informed on the minor child’s issues and activities? Are they both willing to develop a unified co-parenting front?
- Is there any history of either parent committing domestic or child abuse or neglect? Is there evidence that either parent gave the court false information regarding these issues?
Other factors included in the judge’s decision are:
- The moral fitness of the parents. In other words, are the parents’ morals or ethical decisions of detriment to the child? Willis v. Willis (Fla. 2nd DCA 2002)
- The physical and mental health of each parent, and whether it will impact the child’s well-being?
- The child’s home, school, and community record
- Keeping the child with the parent who has had the more extensive caregiving role and taken on the parenting responsibilities
- The capacity and willingness of each parent to be involved in their school and other activities
- The ability and commitment of each parent to maintain a substance-free environment
- Other factors relevant to the determination of a specific parenting plan
As you can see, what is in the child’s best interests can mean different things for each family and child. For example, one child might do best in a joint physical time-sharing situation. In contrast, another would benefit from sole custody for different reasons.
Speaking with a well-versed child custody attorney can help you understand what a family court might see as being in the best interest of your child. They can prepare your case with these factors in mind, ensuring the judge is made aware of any of them that will be in your favor.