Best Interests of the Child

When parents separate or divorce, the issue of child custody comes about. Often, both parents believe they can offer what their child needs, and desire to have him or her live in their home. This sometimes results in bitter custody battles. The court’s focus in these situations is what is in the best interests of the child, when it comes to custody, living arrangements visitations schedules, and other important factors of child rearing.

The ultimate goal of the court is that the child remains happy and healthy, and that he or she adjusts well to the change. Another important issue that is in the child’s best interest is the promotion of positive relationships between the child and both parents. To explore this concept, consider the following best interests of the child definition.

Definition of Best interests of the Child


  1. A doctrine used by the court to determine which parent is suitable for ensuring the health and happiness of a child during custody proceedings.


1970s   U.S. Family Law

Child Custody

When parents divorce, the issue of where the children will reside, when and how they will visit with the other parent, and who will make important decisions in the children’s lives must be decided. These child custody issues may be worked out between the parents and put into a written agreement to be signed by the court with their divorce decree. Many parents, because of anger and hurt feelings during this difficult time in their lives, cannot come to an agreement, or even hotly dispute the issue, leaving the responsibility of making these decisions to the court.

The court takes this responsibility seriously, assigning a neutral third party to investigate the situation and determine what is in the best interests of the children. A parenting plan is then developed which states with whom the children will primarily reside, as well as outlining a specific schedule for visitation. This is referred to as physical custody of the children. The court will also specify whether one or both parents will have legal custody of the children, which entails making important decisions regarding the children’s lives.

Types of Custody

There are a number of terms used to describe different aspects and types of child custody:

  • Physical custody – refers to the parent with whom the children will live, and who will be responsible for the day-to-day care of the children. The children may or may not visit with the other parent on a scheduled basis.
  • Legal custody – refers to the right and responsibility to make important decisions regarding the children’s lives, such as healthcare, schooling, daycare, extracurricular activities, and religious upbringing. This is a separate issue from physical custody.
  • Joint custody – refers to situations in which both parents are given the responsibility for the children’s care. This may be in regard to physical and/or legal custody.
  • Sole custody – refers to situations in which the court has award the sole responsibility for caring for the children. This may be in regard to physical and/or legal custody.
  • Split custody – refers to the splitting up of the children, with physical and legal custody of one or more children assigned to the mother, and the remaining children assigned to the father. This is rare, as the court favors keeping siblings together.

Factors Considered by the Court

When a court hears a custody case, it looks at several factors to determine the best interests of the child. The court must make an objective evaluation of the family’s situation, and in many cases utilizes a mediator or guardian ad litem to help make custody decisions. While specific family laws vary slightly by jurisdiction, common factors considered by the court to determine what is in the child’s best interests include:

  • The wishes of the child (this is only considered if the child is a certain age. They must be able to make an informed decision and understand the situation.)
  • The mental health of both parents
  • The physical health of both parents
  • The home environment of both parents
  • The interaction and relationships amongst the parents and other family members
  • The school and the community in which the child will reside
  • The age of the child
  • The gender of the child
  • Any evidence relating to drug, alcohol, or sexual abuse of either parent
  • Use of force, intimidation, or emotional abuse by either parent

Other Factors Considered by the Court

Stability and continuity of care are also important considerations for every child. To that end, the court considers additional factors including:

  • Whether the child has special needs that one parent can meet better than the other
  • Whether the child has been cared for primarily by one parent throughout his or her life
  • Which parent the child has been residing with since the separation, and for how long
  • Employment status of each parent, including schedule and number of hours worked
  • Each parent’s motive for seeking custody
  • The ability and willingness of each parent to provide stability
  • The ability of each parent to meet the educational and social needs of the child
  • Whether either parent has ever been negligent in caring for any child

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Motive – A person’s reason for doing something; the goal of a person’s actions.
  • Negligent – Failure to act as, or to exercise the level of care of, another reasonably prudent person would be expected to act.
  • Guardian ad Litem – A guardian appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a child during court proceedings.