Five Important Things Judges Look for in Deciding Child Custody Cases

Child custody. It’s often the most contentious and difficult issue in a divorce.

In my former role as a Family Court Judge, making those decisions was all about deciding what is in the best interests of the children.

When deciding child custody and visitation issues, the court hears evidence from the parents, as well as other witnesses (doctors, school teachers, relatives and mental health professionals) who are appointed to evaluate the family. In some cases, the court also appoints a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) who investigates and reports to the court. That information, along with school and medical reports, may play a big role in the court’s decision.

Child Custody Decisions

There are three major parts to a custody decision:
• Legal custody – The parent with legal custody is the one who makes the major decisions about issues like the child’s health, education and religion.
• Physical custody – This decision looks at where the child will have his or her primary residence. The children may live with mom, dad or jointly with both parents.
• Visitation/access schedule – This involves deciding when a child spends time with each parent during the school year, summer, holidays and other vacations and special events.

Significant Questions in Child Custody Decisions

When making these decisions, five of the most significant questions to be considered include:

1. Does either parent present any physical danger to the children?
2. Does either parent present any emotional danger or other risk of harm to the children?
3. Is each parent capable of meeting the children’s basic needs such as providing shelter, food, clothing, medical care and meeting their educational needs?
4. Is each parent able to encourage, support and facilitate the children’s relationship with the other parent?
5. Has either parent inappropriately involved the children in adult issues or parental conflict?

No judge makes these decisions lightly. Judges are well aware that they can be making a choice that will affect a child’s life and have a major impact on the family. When all the evidence is in, there is one overriding question that guides every decision judges make: What is in the best interest of the child?

By Thomas D. Colin


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