The Primary Caretaker Standard in New York Child Custody Law

Child Custody disputes and Divorces are complicated at the best of times.  Often, legally breaking down a relationship becomes moredifficult when children are involved. When a mother and father choose to separate or divorce, they not only have to think about the steps that should be taken to improve their chances of pursuing their own best interests, but they also should think carefully about the best interests of their children. That is the standard that a New York court would use.

While, in an ideal scenario, fathers and mothers seeking a divorce would carefully come to a decision about custody agreements, child support, and parenting time or visitation together, using a mediation method or collaborative law – without the strain of battling the issue out in court – family law is not always this simple. In some cases, a New York Supreme Court or Family Court judge will be forced to step into the scenario and figure out which parent should be awarded primary physical custody. In these cases, there are many factors for a judge to consider when putting the best interests of a child first, and one is the concept of who can be defined as the “primary caretaker” for the children.  Please note that the primary caretaker status is not determinative of the best interests of the children, rather it is one of the many considerations that can be taken into account. During this blog, I will discuss which details can be provided to show who can be regarded as the primary caretaker of a child, and what it means to be a primary caretaker. 

The Primary Caretaker Standard

During New York child custody cases, Family Courts or the Supreme Court the will often allow for a preference to be shown towards a parent who is able to officially demonstrate that either he, or she was the child in question’s primary caretaker during the time of the marriage, or that she or he assumed that role if the parents in question are unmarried. After all, custody cases can still arise between individuals who share a relationship, but never got married or they might deal with custody without moving to a divorce right away.

The primary caretaker standard has not always been as prominent a consideration within New York family law. However, it began to be recognized as an important consideration in pursuing the best interests of children within the court, when psychologists began to underline the importance of the bond that exists between any child and his or her primary caretaker. Indeed, the emotional bond that exists between a child and his or her primary caretaker is considered to be a factor to encourage the child’s successful development through his or her childhood and into adulthood. As a result, most psychologists strongly encourage the courts to take the presence of the primary caretaker and child relationship into account when thinking about the future psychological stability and growth of the child or children in question.

Interestingly, being defined as a primary caretaker doesn’t necessarily limit you to being the caretaker for a child. In other cases, primary caretakers can be individuals who care for the elderly, who are unable to financially, physically, or emotionally support themselves.

How Courts Recognize a Primary Caretaker

So how can the courts determine who has been the primary caretaker for the child in question? The burden will generally come down to each parent in question who is attempting to have residential custody of the child. This individual will need to show how the duties of parenthood have been divided between themselves, and their partner, or ex-partner, during the course of the child’s life. In other words, they will need to show how they contributed to the development and emotional growth of the child, and looked after him or her on a parental level, including, but not limited to, taking part in such tasks as:

  • Bathing, dressing, and grooming
  • Meal preparation and planning
  • Purchasing clothes and completing laundry
  • Teaching writing, reading, and math skills, or simply helping out with homework
  • Encouraging or promoting assistance in extracurricular activities and clubs
  • Attending school meetings and teacher conferences
  • Participating in and planning leisure activities with the child
  • Caring for the child when he or she is sick

In simple terms, the activities of a primary caretaker represent the standard activities that most people would consider to be a basic part of parenthood. Depending on the court in question, and how the decision regarding primary caretakers is being made, some other factors may also be taken into consideration.

Considering the best Interests of the Child

Ultimately, the consideration of who can be defined as a primary caretaker within a child’s life is made in an effort to ensure that whoever is given primary custody, will be able to give the child the level of care and attention that they have grown used to. Of course, in some cases, the question of “who is the primary caretaker” isn’t so simple to answer. After all, there are many instances wherein both parents involved in looking after a child or children have shared the responsibilities of parenting equally amongst themselves.  In these cases, and even where the primary caretaker is clear, the court of New York will need to think about the other factors that are used to determine the best interests of the child in most standards, including, again not limited to, things like:

  • The preferences of the child if he or she is old enough to make informed decisions
  • The mental and physical health of the parents
  • The parent who is most equipped to provide financial and emotional stability
  • The opportunities for further interaction with extended family with each parent
  • The adjustment that may be needed for a change in community or school;
  • The evidence of emotional abuse towards the child by either patient
  • The evidence of substance or alcohol abuse by either parent.

To learn more about child custody considerations, the best interests of the children, and the definition of primary caretakers in family law cases, please reach out to me, Mr. Darren M. Shapiro, or read some of my other blog posts and webpages. You can get in touch via our online form, or over the phone at 516-333-6555.

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