What are the "Best Interests of the Child?"

Social emotional development of children with down syndrome, the girl plays in the classroom with educational toys

If you have done any research at all on how Utah courts make child custody decisions, you have encountered the phrase “the best interests of the child.” Courts in Utah and other states make custody decisions based on the best interests of the child—but what exactly does that mean? Who decides what is in a child’s best interests, and how can you, as a parent, show that it is best for your child to be with you?

How Utah Child Custody Decisions Get Made

Before we talk about how courts think about child custody decisions, let’s talk about child custody in general. When we speak of child custody, we’re really talking about two separate things: legal custody, which means who gets to make major life decisions for the child, and physical custody, which refers to which parent a child lives with.

Utah, like other states, values the rights of parents to make decisions about their children. So when parents divorce or are living in different households, they are generally free to decide how their children will spend time with each of them. Most parents reach an agreement at some point about their children’s custody, which the court will approve, so long as the agreement does not appear to be contrary to the children’s best interests (there’s that phrase again). When the court signs off on a parental agreement about custody, that agreement becomes a binding court order.

If the parents cannot reach an agreement on child custody, the court must make a decision. Utah favors both parents being involved in the major decisions affecting their child when possible, so joint legal custody is very common. In fact, Utah has a legal presumption in favor of joint legal custody. If both parents want legal custody, there would need to be a compelling reason for a court to grant one parent sole legal custody.

As for physical custody, there are all sorts of possible arrangements. Parents might have nearly equal time with their child, and that time could be configured in a variety of ways. It might make sense for the child to live primarily with one parent, with the non-custodial parent having frequent parent-time. If parents live far apart, the child might live with the custodial parent during the school year, and visit the non-custodial parent on school breaks. The custody and parent-time arrangement depends on—you guessed it—the best interest of the child.

The Utah Best Interest Factors

When a Utah court must make a decision regarding child custody, they do so by considering each of a list of “best interest” factors. All states have their own best interest factors, and most are pretty similar. Some states’ list of factors have emerged through case law, and others, like Utah’s, are codified in the state’s statutes. The Utah best interest factors are found in Utah Code Section 30-3-10 and paraphrased below. The court considers for each parent:

  • Evidence of neglect or abuse involving the child or a member of the household
  • The parent’s understanding of and demonstrated ability to meet the child’s developmental needs
  • The parent’s capacity and willingness to function as a parent, including co-parenting skills
  • The parent’s past conduct and demonstrated moral character
  • The parent’s emotional stability
  • Drug abuse, excessive drinking, or other factors that limit the parent’s ability to parent
  • The parent’s exposure of the child to pornography or other harmful materials
  • The parent’s reason for having relinquished custody or parent-time in the past
  • The depth and duration of the parent’s desire for custody and parent-time
  • The parent’s religious compatibility with the child
  • The parent’s financial responsibility
  • The child’s relationship with stepparents and extended family who may impact the child’s best interests
  • Who has been the child’s primary caretaker
  • Previous parenting arrangements in which the child was happy and well-adjusted to home, school, and community
  • The relative benefit of keeping siblings together
  • The child’s stated wishes and concerns about custody, taking into account their cognitive ability and emotional maturity
  • The strength of the bond between the parent and the child
  • Any other factor the court deems relevant

As you can see, there are many factors the court must take into account when deciding what custody arrangement would be in a child’s best interest, but none of them are particularly surprising. It makes sense that a court would want to consider things like a parent’s abusive behavior or their bond with their child.

One factor that is not present in that long list is the sex of the parent. Decades in the past, mothers may have been favored for custody of their children. Nowadays, courts recognize that both mothers and fathers can be nurturing custodians and loving parents. Accordingly, there is no presumption in favor of a parent of either sex when it comes to Utah custody determinations.

Is Living With You in Your Child’s Best Interests?

The Utah “best interest” factors look not at a snapshot in time, but at the big picture. What kind of relationship exists between you and your child? Who does the child naturally turn to when they need something? What kind of environments have they thrived in? In short, if you have been an active, involved parent, continuing to live with you at least part of the time is probably in your child’s best interests.

Unfortunately, the court doesn’t have the same broad knowledge of your family’s life and history that you do. A court can make decisions based only upon the testimony and evidence that comes before it. That is why it is critical to work with an experienced Utah family law attorney who understands what the court needs to hear, and how best to present that evidence.

To learn more about Utah child custody and the best interests of the child, call (801) 326-8300 or contact Barton Wood to schedule a consultation.

Categories: Child Custody