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Florida’s “Best Interest” Factors in Determining Parenting

When marriages dissolve and the parents of minor children cannot agree on which parent shall have physical and/or legal custody or if there should be a joint custody arrangement, the court will determine parental responsibility and custody/visitation based on what is in the best interests of the child.
But what exactly does that mean for Florida’s parents of minor children who are going through a divorce or who were never married but wish to establish certain parental responsibilities? What are the factors that a court uses when it decides the parenting issues such as custody and visitation?

What is Custody?

Although the legislature has removed the terms “custody” and “visitation” from the statutes regarding divorcing parties, there are still two main areas to be decided by the Courts. First, there is parental responsibility. Parental responsibility dictates who gets to make the major decisions for the children (health, education, religion, etc.). Typically the Courts order the parties to “share” parental responsibility so that parties have joint and equal decision making authority. Second, the Courts must order a parenting time or a time-sharing schedule (previously custody and visitation). Here, the Courts outline where the children will be living and what schedule the parties will adhere to.

Parenting Plans are required

Parents who share any kind of custody with their children must have a court-approved, written parenting plan. The plan sets forth the daily custody obligations such as who is responsible for school and medical needs, states where the child is going to school, and determines the custody and time-sharing schedule and any other activities in which the child is involved. The plan may be more detailed depending on the circumstances of each parent, the activities involved, the number and needs of each child and any special considerations.
Categories of Factors Determining Best Interests
Florida lists no less than 20 factors that a court considers when determining which parent is to have physical or legal custody, if there is to be joint custody or any other arrangement. These can be grouped into certain categories:

Developmental Needs

Courts look at a parent’s own stability and the setting in which the child is to be placed. A parent who is actively involved in the child’s schooling, meals, discipline, medical, religious and any other activities and can provide a steady and predictable routine regarding these matters will most likely be the primary caretaker or even be granted sole custody of the child if the other parent is wholly lacking in this regard. A child who is old and mature enough may be allowed to state a preference for one parent over another regarding primary custody.
Health and Domestic Safety Factors

A court will see if the parents are mentally stable or have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence, neglect or other criminal behavior. If issues do exist, it is less likely the court will award shared custody and may order supervised visitation for the less stable parent.
Moral Fitness

A child’s moral development is essential and the parent who lacks certain moral fitness may be denied joint custody. If there is substance abuse, criminal behavior, verbal abuse or numerous casual relationships with others, then the court may investigate to see if the child has been adversely affected.
Communication and Cooperation

Courts frown on parents who fail to cooperate or to follow a time sharing schedule or who will only communicate with the other on a very limited basis. Both parents need to be kept informed by the other of any issues that arise with the child and of the activities in which the child is involved. The courts strive to minimize the stress of a divorce on the children by having the parents remain civil and communicative. A parent who falsely accuses the other of criminal, abusive or immoral behavior may find his or her custody time reduced.
Over the last few years, Courts have shown much more of a willingness to enter a equal time-sharing schedule assuming both parents are involved and genuinely interested in their child’s general welfare. There is no doubt it is in children’s best interest to have both parents actively participating in their development.