When it comes to child custody, the courts follow one overriding principle: the best interest of the child. This phrase is used frequently when kids are involved. But what does it actually mean? While it may sound simple and obvious, like most things in the realm, it’s not always so straightforward.
What Is The Best Interest Of The Child?
On a basic level, the best interest of the child is precisely what it sounds like. Where is the safest, most stable, healthiest place for the child to live? 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. In circumstances where both parents are loving, well adjusted, and able to provide a dependable, wholesome environment, the best interest of the child is more difficult to define and determine.
So, how do the courts go about determining the best interest of a child?
They 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,
- The educational options and resources available to each parent,
- The stability of each parent’s home,
- The income and economic resources of each parent.
This list is far from exhaustive, but these factors, or some combination, often play substantial roles.
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Many people believe the courts allow children to choose where they want to live and with which parent. That’s not the case. It’s rare that a child’s direct input directly 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 will be given.
That said, this input only goes so far. Ultimately, the court bases the decision on what’s truly best for the child rather than a child’s 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.
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How Best Interest Is Determined
As you might imagine, the law specifically lays out the guidelines for determining the best interest of a child in a custody case.
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.”
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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.
Mothers and fathers have an equal claim to custody, even if it may not always play out like that in a practical way.
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 will help you make sound decisions, reach a custody agreement that represents the best interest of the child, and meet the needs of everyone involved, especially the kids.
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Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of an earlier post and has been revamped for accuracy and comprehensiveness.