What Does Best Interests of the Child Mean in Child Custody Cases?

Best Interest Standardkids in air

In many legal matters, the focus of a court is often into the past of the parties involved in an attempt to resolve the issues. On the other hand, in a custody case, the court attempts to perceive the future and predict which parent will provide a better environment for the child in question. To this end, the New York courts employ various methods – relying on the use of expert testimony, and examining past behavior to predict future actions. Though the statutory law in custody in New York is somewhat sparse, the Domestic Relations Law 70 provides that there will be no prima facie right to custody for either parent – rather the court must determine solely what is in the best interests of the child.

Though most people are relatively familiar with the “best interests” term, it regularly defies a firm definition. Because cases regarding children are sensitive in their very nature, each case is decided in regards to its own particular merits. However, it’s worth noting that some definitions do remain consistent from one case to the next, and so too do certain factors that courts will consider in an initial custody determination. Following, we will consider a number of factors that are considered by the New York court in establishing the “best interests” of a child. The list that we will discuss is not exclusive by any means, however it will provide a general idea of some of the things courts consider in coming to a decision. Great deference is permitted to the trial court by appellate courts since the trial courts are in the best position to weigh the credibility and testimony in a case(Eschbach v. Eschbach 56 N.Y.2d 167).   This blog will summarize the best interests standard as articulated in the Eschbach case which remains an important case for child custody matters in New York to date.

Prior Agreements

There are a number of factors to be brought into consideration when determining the best interests of the child, from the quality of the home in question, to the background of the parents, and even the wishes of the child themselves. In circumstances wherein parties enter into an agreement about who should be given custody, it is stated that this priority should be accorded, not as an absolute – but as a weighty factor, in the absence of extraordinary circumstances. Though courts will strongly consider any written agreement made between the parents involved, they will not be bound by them. If the court is not bound by the existence of the prior agreement, then it will have the ability to order that the custody arrangement be changed, when the totality of circumstances in question – including the existence of any prior award – warrants this change according to the best interests of the child.

Finances and Home Environment

While the Eschbach case suggests that the finances of each parent involved within a custody battle will play a significant role in determining custody – it is worth noting that financial status is not the only valid concern to examine. Important, among the circumstances to be evaluated in any child custody case, is the quality of the parental guidance and home environment that any custodial parent is capable of providing to the child in question. Usually, it is only when the finances of the parent in question prevents that parent from providing a secure housing environment that those finances will play a highly significant role in any determination. Though the court will not overlook the financial status of the parents, an equally valid concern lays within the ability of each parent to provide for the intellectual and emotional development of the child.

When the court attempts to determine whether the proposed custodial parent will be capable of continuing to provide for the various needs of the child, it must be cognizant of their individual needs. It is entirely possible, of course, that a circumstance such as a complete breakdown in communication between child and parent could become applicable, requiring a change in custody that would be in the best interests of only one of several children. To this end, it is essential that the court considers the desires of each of the children in question, though again this is only a factor to be considered, and the desires of the child will not be determinative in reaching a case decision.

Child Preference and Sibling Connection

Though they will not determine the overall outcome of the case, the expressed preference of the children involved within a custody battle will provide some indication of what may be in those children’s best interests. Of course, when it comes to appropriately weighing this particular factor, it is important for any court to weigh the maturity and age of the child, as well as the possibility that the child may have been influenced in some way by the parent in question. In most circumstances, the closer the child’s age is to eighteen – the more weight will be given to their wishes. However, the court may always choose to disregard the wishes of a child if such an action gives preference to that child’s best interests.

Finally, the Eschbach case recognizes that more often than not, it is beneficial to the child to continue living in the same home environment as his or her siblings. Although this matter is not an absolute, the companionship and stability afforded by keeping siblings together is usually considered to be an important factor within custody cases, and close familial relationships should always be encouraged for psychological and growth benefits. Generally, young sisters and brothers require the company of each other, and separating them unnecessarily can be both harmful and traumatic. However, even with this in mind, it’s important to note that the New York court is not bound to keep siblings together under any circumstances, and in particular cases, the court may determine that the best interests of the children demand that they be split. This can happen when the best interests of each child will be best met by being placed with different parents.

The weighing of the various and crucial factors involved in determining the best interests of a child require a significant degree of thought and consideration. Often, the court must also evaluate the character, sincerity, and testimony of all of the parties involved within the dispute in order to come to a reliable conclusion. As usual, please refer to our other web pages and blog entries for more information on family law, and feel free to call for your initial consultation.