Child’s Best Interest: How Does It Play a Role in Determining Child Custody?

Going to court to determine child custody can feel like visiting a casino with the highest stakes possible: access to and influence over your children. For many people, child custody is the most contentious element of their divorce. Thankfully, the judge has guidelines they must follow when ascertaining the final custody agreement. In Utah, the child’s best interest is at the heart of those guidelines. Let’s look more into what that means and the role it plays in determining child custody.

Utah and 27 other states put children’s safety, protection, and health at the top of the custody priority list. That means that child custody agreements decided by a judge must prioritize those elements. What the parents want matters, as does what the child wants. But what is in the child’s best interest trumps those concerns.

For example, the court would likely not give a parent full custody of a child if there was a history of abuse even if both child and parent expressed a preference to live together full-time. Most cases won’t be that extreme or clear-cut, but the example shows how the child’s well-being outweighs the child’s or parent’s expressed desires.

Discretion

Even with the “child’s best interest in place” guideline, much about custody is still left up to the judge. Determining what is in the child’s interest is a vague concept, open to interpretation. This ambiguity is where your custody court lawyers are vital. They can help the court see why your role in the child’s life is critical to their well-being. Attorneys can provide examples of your positive influence on your children and explain why nurturing that relationship is best for them. If necessary, your lawyer can also demonstrate to the judge why limiting time with the other parent may be in the child’s best interest.

Because the judge has so much discretion in interpreting how the concept of the child’s best interest applies to your unique situation, you need expert representation. Your lawyer will know how to present your case and highlight your relationship with your children to demonstrate how that relationship benefits the child.

Joint Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to who has the right to make crucial decisions on behalf of a child, including education, medical care, cosmetic procedures, and religious choices. Joint legal custody means that both parents share in making these choices.

Divorce in Salt Lake or other parts of Utah starts with an assumption of joint legal custody. The court assumes that unless proven otherwise, both parents should have a say in raising their child. The legal system considers joint legal custody to be in the child’s best interest unless proven otherwise.

You can overcome this assumption by proving the presence of one of these factors:

  • There is domestic violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect. The abuse may involve the children, parent, or another member of the household.
  • The parents live far apart, and that would create a barrier to effective joint decision-making.
  • The child has special needs that can not be sufficiently met by one of the parents.
  • There is some other factor you can show the court is relevant to the child’s best interest.

Note that while the default assumption in Utah is for joint legal custody, the same does not apply to physical custody. Physical custody pertains to where or with which parent the child lives and for how long.

General Factors for Determining the Best Interest of a Child

Utah Code Section 30-3-10 lists some factors that judges may use to determine what custody situation is in a child’s best interest. This list is relevant for both legal custody–who has a say in important decisions about the child’s life, and physical custody–which parent the child lives with and for how long.

It is important to note that this list is not comprehensive. If other factors are essential to understanding the child’s well-being, the court may also consider those.

In general, a judge considers the following elements of each parent’s life and interactions with their children:

  • Nature and history of their relationship with the child
  • Ability to care for the child
  • Desire to provide care
  • Financial and moral conduct
  • Relationships with other siblings
  • Relationships between the child and extended family members or other people who affect children’s best interests, and
  • Willingness to foster a relationship between the child and the other parent in the absence of abuse or neglect

Finally, the court may consider the expressed desires of the children. While children can not simply choose which parent receives custody or under what terms, it will be important to the judge to know if the child has strong preferences. A judge will put more weight on the child’s preferences if the children are at least 14 years old.

One factor a judge can not use to decide custody is the parent’s gender. Utah law strictly forbids making custody rulings based on a parent’s gender. This law means neither mothers nor fathers have any advantage in custody hearings.

The concept of a child’s best interest is central to child custody hearings and decisions in Utah. Your family court attorney in Weber or other parts of Utah will work to ensure the judge in your case understands the value of your presence in your child’s life. Your lawyer works for what is in your best interest, which means showing the judge how a healthy relationship with you and a decisive say in their life is in your child’s best interest. Don’t gamble with your future or the future of your child. Ensuring you can clearly demonstrate what is best for your child helps guarantee you can continue to play a critical, active role in their life.

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