What Does "In the Best Interest of the Child" Actually Mean?

Little Boy Smiling at the camera in Campground concept for child's best interest.

In the course of any divorce involving children or unmarried custody case, parents will likely hear their lawyers or the judges refer to doing what is “in the best interest of the child.” But what does a child's best interests actually mean? And what can you, as a parent, do to help prove that your preferred custodial arrangement is truly what your child needs most. Understanding the factors that Connecticut courts consider in deciding child custody can help you and your divorce attorney build a stronger case in your favor.

What Does Child Custody Mean in Connecticut?

In a broad sense, the term “child custody” sets ground rules for how parents interact concerning their children. When parents are married, they both have the authority to make decisions for their children and to control where they live. However, when parents’ marriages break down, Connecticut law breaks the idea of child custody into two parts:

  • Legal Custody which is decision-making about the child’s life, education, medical care, and religion.
  • Physical Custody which controls where the child will live, which parent will provide their day-to-day care, and when.

Custody may be awarded as:

  • Sole Legal Custody where one parent is given full decision-making authority.
  • Joint Legal Custody where both parents must communicate and make good faith efforts to agree on important decisions including those involving health and education. Joint legal custody is the most common, as court’s are bound by a statutory presumption in its favor.
  • Shared Physical Custody where the child spends roughly equal amounts of time with each parent according to a schedule. This is increasingly favored, although it may not be the best solution in every case.
  • Primary Physical Custody is the more traditional (and still very common) model where the child spends most of his or her time with one parent, and the “non-custodial” parent has parenting time according to a schedule or on a more flexible basis.

Which Matters More: Parents’ Wishes or the Child's Best Interest?

As a practical matter, courts considering custody and parenting time (sometimes called visitation) – as part of a divorce, in a separate child custody proceeding, or on a request to modify an existing custody order – must consider the rights and wishes of the parents. However, the controlling factor, indeed, the ultimate and only test, is the best interests of the child. If the parties reach a custody agreement, they can present a parenting plan to the judge, who will review it. However, even if both parents agree, the Judge can still reject the parenting plan if it is not in the best interests of the child. To determine what that is, the Connecticut courts look to do what is in the best interests of the child, based on several factors laid out in state child custody statutes.

Connecticut Best Interest Factors

The law, which was just supplemented in 2022, specifically lists 17 factors that Connecticut courts may look to in determining what custody and parenting time arrangement is in the best interest of the child:

  1. The physical and emotional safety of the child;
  2. The temperament and developmental needs of the child;
  3. The capacity and disposition of the parents to understand and meet the needs of the child;
  4. Any relevant and material information obtained from the child, including the informed preferences of the child;
  5. The wishes of the child’s parents as to custody;
  6. The past and current interaction and relationship of the child with each parent, the child's siblings and any other person who may significantly affect the best interests of the child;
  7. The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage such continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent as is appropriate, including compliance with any court orders;
  8. Any manipulation by or coercive behavior of the parents in an effort to involve the child in the parents' dispute;
  9. The ability of each parent to be actively involved in the life of the child;
  10. The child's adjustment to his or her home, school and community environments;
  11. The length of time that the child has lived in a stable and satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity in such environment, provided the court may consider favorably a parent who voluntarily leaves the child's family home pendente lite in order to alleviate stress in the household;
  12. The stability of the child's existing or proposed residences, or both;
  13. The mental and physical health of all individuals involved, except that a disability of a proposed custodial parent or other party, in and of itself, shall not be determinative of custody unless the proposed custodial arrangement is not in the best interests of the child;
  14. The child's cultural background;
  15. The effect on the child of the actions of an abuser, if any domestic violence … has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual or the child;
  16. Whether the child or a sibling of the child has been abused or neglected…
  17. Whether the party satisfactorily completed participation in a parenting education program…

The law states, “The court is not required to assign any weight to any of the factors that it considers, but shall articulate the basis for its decision.” In other words, the Judge can focus on the factors relevant to your family and your child, but it has to give a reason for its child custody decision. Past cases have also considered a variety of other factors, including a parent’s remarriage or intimate relationships, mental health or substance abuse problems, and flexibility and ability to address the child’s psychological, medical, or educational needs. Generally speaking, anything related to either party’s ability to parent the child or the child’s well-being may be considered in deciding what custody arrangement is in the best interest of the child.

How to Prove the Child's Best Interests

Since the scope of appropriate factors is so wide, it can be hard to focus on the most important aspects of proving the best interests of the child. Especially in a high-conflict divorce, it can be easy for parents to get distracted by their (often legitimate) grievances against the other party, instead of staying focused on the child’s needs. Before bringing any issue to the court, you and your divorce attorney should consider how that issue affects your children, or the other party’s ability to act as a parent. Work with your attorney to focus on what is most important for your children’s welfare. This will make it easier for the Connecticut family court to understand your child’s needs, and grant you a custody award that is in the best interests of the child.

The family law attorneys at Lawrence & Jurkiewicz, LLC in Torrington, Connecticut represent divorcing parents throughout the greater Hartford area and the Litchfield County area. We can help parents work out a parenting plan that addresses their wishes and their children’s needs, and can help prove that plan is in the best interests of the child in court. We offer consultations by in-person appointment, phone conferences and zoom meetings. Please call us at (860) 264-1551 or contact us to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

Categories: Child Custody