When it comes to child custody, the courts follow one overriding principle: the best interests of the child.
This phrase comes up frequently when kids are involved in divorce cases. But what does it actually mean?
While it may sound simple and obvious, like most things in family law, it’s not always so straightforward.
What Is The Best Interest Of The Child?
On a basic level, the best interests of the child is precisely what the phrase sounds like. Where is the safest, most stable, healthiest place for the child to live? Which parent has the strongest relationship with the child? In some cases, this is easy to determine.
If one parent has a steady job and a secure home, while the other has a long history of abuse and neglect, the choice is clear.
But not every case is so cut and dried. Most cases aren’t. In circumstances where both parents are loving, well adjusted, and able to provide a dependable, wholesome environment, the best interests of the child is more difficult to define and determine.
So, how do the courts go about determining the best interests of a child?
Oregon courts consider a number of factors when making this decision. In fact, they use just about anything they deem relevant. Because of this, almost everything is on the table. However, there are a number of common elements.
- The age and gender of the child.
- Educational options and resources available to each parent.
- The stability of each parent’s home.
- Income and economic resources of each parent.
Far from an exhaustive list, these factors, or some combination, often play the most substantial roles.
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Can a Child Choose Where They Want to Live?
Many people believe the courts allow children to choose where they want to live and with which parent. That’s not the case.
In reality, a child’s direct input rarely sways the court’s decision one way or another.
The child’s wishes can play a role, but it’s not the norm. Children’s voices can be heard if the court orders a custody evaluation or appoints a guardian ad litem to represent the child’s well-being.
The older and more mature the child, and the more well-reasoned their argument, the more weight it carries.
That said, this input only goes so far.
Ultimately, the court bases the decision on what’s truly best for the child rather than their preference or parental convenience. If their opinion is to carry weight, it needs to be more substantial than dad won’t let me stay out late or mom hassles me to do my homework. They must present compelling reasons for wanting to live with one parent over the other.
Related Reading: Oregon Custody: Parenting Evaluations
How the Best Interests Of The Child Are Determined
As you might imagine, the law specifically lays out the guidelines for determining the best interests of a child in custody cases.
Oregon Statue 107.137 (1) reads:
“In determining the best interests and welfare of the child, the court shall consider the following relevant factors:
(a) The emotional ties between the child and other family members;
(b) The interest of the parties in and attitude toward the child;
(c) The desirability of continuing an existing relationship;
(d) The abuse of one parent by the other;
(e) The preference for the primary caregiver of the child, if the caregiver is deemed fit by the court; and
(f) The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the other parent and the child. However, the court may not consider such willingness and ability if one parent shows that the other parent has sexually assaulted or engaged in a pattern of behavior of abuse against the parent or a child and that a continuing relationship with the other parent will endanger the health or safety of either parent or the child.”
Related Reading: Fathers’ Rights And Child Custody
The Statute Explained
The statute goes on to examine the process in even closer detail. Under the law, the court won’t focus solely on a single one of the above factors.
They can’t consider a parent’s disability unless it endangers the health or safety of the child. It considers income, social environment, marital status, or lifestyle “only if it is shown that any of these factors are causing or may cause emotional or physical damage to the child.”
Custody won’t be awarded if one parent has been convicted of certain classifications of sexual assault. And being denied custody under this subsection does not remove that parent’s obligation to pay child support.
Beyond these, the statute also clarifies one common misconception. Many people believe mothers have a legal advantage in these cases. From a purely letter-of-the-law standpoint, that’s not the case. As written, the law doesn’t favor one parent above the other.
Child custody cases have a tendency to become contentious as emotions flare and tempers run high. It’s often difficult for parents to navigate these issues to keep a level head.
Maintaining composure and control helps you make sound decisions, reach a custody agreement that represents the best interests of the child, and meet the needs of everyone involved, especially the kids.
Related Reading: How Do Criminal Charges Affect Child Custody?