Best interests of the child — what does it mean?

Most people know how courts are supposed to decide who gets custody of kids: Do what is in “the best interests of the children.”

It sounds simple.

It isn’t.

And there are good reasons it isn’t simple:

  • Every child isn’t the same. What made sense in your best friend’s divorce case may not be what’s best for your son or daughter.
  • You think you know what’s in the best interests of your child.
  • The other parent also thinks they know what those best interests are.
  • The two of you might not agree on what “best interests” means for your kids.
  • The judge might not agree with either one of you.

Now, in almost every case the judge doesn’t want to decide what “best interests” means for your children. Family court judges get that they don’t know your kids as well as you do, and they hope parents will decide together how they will share custody. But in the end, judges make that decision if parents just can’t agree.

When they do make the decision, judges don’t get to make up their own definition of “best interests.” In Minnesota, they are required to consider 12 best interest factors and how each of those factors applies to the families in their courtroom. You can find the full text of the law with all of those factors here, but here is a (slightly) shortened summary of each:

  1. your child’s needs, and how the proposed custody arrangements will affect those needs;
  2. any special medical, mental health, or educational needs your child may have;
  3. what your child wants, if the judge thinks the child is old and mature enough;
  4. whether there has been domestic abuse — either between the parents or in either parent’s other relationships — and how that abuse impacts your child;
  5. any physical, mental, or chemical health issue of a parent if that issue affects your child’s safety or developmental needs;
  6. the role each parent has played in caring for the child;
  7. each parent’s willingness and ability to provide ongoing and consistent care for your child;
  8. how changing his or her home, school, and community might affect your child;
  9. the relationships between your child and each parent, siblings, and other significant persons in his or her life;
  10. the benefit to your child in maximizing parenting time with both parents and the detriment from limiting parenting time with either parent;
  11. how likely each parent is to support and encourage the child’s relationship with the other parent; and
  12. each parent’s ability to work together to raise the child.

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