If parents cannot come to an agreement on child custody, they may turn to the courts for help.
According to North Carolina law, a judge determines how the custody arrangement will be divided between parents based on the child’s best interest, but what does that really mean? Here are five areas that a judge might consider when making custody decisions.
1. The living environment of the parents
A judge will assess a parent’s ability to provide a stable living environment for the child. This does not mean how big a parent’s home is. As long as a parent’s home is clean and safe, material considerations like this should not affect custody decisions.
Stability has more to do with which parent can best meet the child’s emotional needs. The court may also consider whether a parent has a significant other or roommate that lives with them and whether that individual is a positive or negative influence in the child’s life. The home’s distance from the child’s school, job and friends also makes a big impact on their development.
2. The employment and work schedule of the parents
A judge may be inclined to assign more child care responsibility to the parent who has the most flexibility to provide day to day care. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a working parent should get less time, especially if that parent has consistently participated in the day-to-day care of the child, such as:
- Picking up and dropping off at school;
- Transporting them to extra-curricular activities; and
- Attending to health care appointments.
In many households, both parents work and share child care responsibilities and have a relatively equal capacity to do so after separation and divorce. However, in cases where one parent does not work at all, or cases where one parent travels nationally or internationally a substantial amount of the time, judges may have to base a parent’s visitation time around when they are actually available to be present and exercise the time. This tends to maximize each parent’s quality time with the child rather than force the parents into a rigid schedule where they have to unnecessarily delegate part of their visitation time to third party caregivers.
3. The relationship between the child and parents
The court may consider the quality of the relationship between the child and parent. If a child feels more comfortable or has a stronger bond with one parent over the other, that information can help a judge design a custody schedule to promote their child’s bes interest.
It’s important to remember that this is still only one piece of the big picture a judge considers when making custody decisions. Children’s relationships with each of their parents often change over time, even in intact families. Separation and divorce often complicate children’s feelings and emotions about their parents. In high conflict families, there are often boundary issues which may result in a closer relationship between a child and one of the parents to the exclusion of the other, but this is not always healthy, and in some cases can be very damaging. Judges have to carefully navigate these dynamics when making custody decisions.
4. The mental and physical health of the parents
The mental and physical well-being of the parents is crucial in making custody decisions. If a parent neglects their mental or physical health, it may become more difficult for them to give their child the proper care they need.
Parents experiencing untreated mental health or substance abuse issues may at best be unable to provide proper care and supervision, and at worst might place the child at risk of harm. Many separating parents struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues that are triggered by the emotions surrounding the destruction of the marriage and divorce.
In many cases, these issues are temporary and can be resolved with appropriate intervention and support. However, in some cases, these issues may have been persistent throughout the marriage and the child’s continued exposure to this has to be considered when determining how best to promote the child’s best interests and preserve their relationship with both parents.
5. The child’s wishes
In North Carolina, there is no set age at which a child may speak to the judge, although most practitioners advise against this when possible. In some cases, children are not required to testify in court. but may be permitted to speak to the judge privately in chambers, either with or without attorneys.
This is not the sole factor a judge considers when making custody decisions, and often, is not the controlling factor. Children’s exposure to the litigation between their parents can be traumatic and emotionally damaging. Many court systems have processes to avoid this, such as appointment of a guardian ad litem or an attorney for the child, which allows the child’s wishes to be known while shielding them from any direct involvement in the court process.
When neither parent can agree on a resolution, an experienced family law attorney can help you navigate the complexities of your custody case and help you reach the best outcome for your child.