What Does “Best Interests of the Child” Mean?
When parents of a child have a dispute over custody, the family court is required to make its custody decision based on what is in the best interest of the child. This is a legal standard that includes several factors that must be considered by a judge who is hearing a child custody matter and making a final custody determination.
Family court judges use the “best interests of the child” standard to make decisions regarding parenting time and legal decision-making authority, otherwise known as custody. If you are involved in a dispute regarding the custody of your child, the experienced attorneys at the Law Office of Daniel Hutto can help you to understand how this standard might be applied in your case and how to use it to best advocate on your behalf.
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What Issues Must be Determined in a Child Custody Case in Arizona?
When Arizona courts hear child custody cases, two issues must be decided. The first issue that a judge will need to determine is the physical custody, now known as parent time, of the child. This refers to which parent the child will live with and the amount of visitation the other parent will enjoy with the child.
The second issue that a judge will need to decide is the legal custody, now known as legal decision-making authority, of the child. Legal custody refers to which parent will have the authority to make decisions for the child. These two issues are now referred to as parenting time and decision-making authority in Arizona instead of physical and legal custody.
Instead of letting the court make decisions about parenting time and decision-making authority, parents should try to negotiate with each other to reach an agreement. In many cases, parents are happier and more involved with the outcome when they can reach negotiated agreements between the parties instead of leaving the decisions up to the court. An experienced family law attorney can help negotiate on your behalf to obtain the best custody arrangement for you and your children.
After reviewing the best interests of the child factors, the court might issue any of the following orders:
- One parent could be granted sole legal decision-making authority and designated primary residential parent, with limited or supervised parenting time for the other parent.
- The parents could be awarded joint legal decision-making authority with final say to one parent and could exercise equal parenting time.
- Both parents could be granted equal parenting time and share joint legal decision-making authority with neither parent having final say.
What is Arizona’s standard for Best Interests of the Child?
The best interests of the child standard is codified in A.R.S. § 25-403, which includes the factors that the courts are required to consider when they make custody decisions. The factors that the courts must consider when determining what is in a child’s best interests include all of the following:
- The relationship the child has had with each parent in the past, the relationship that the child has with each parent currently, and the potential future relationship that the child might have with each parent;
- The relationship that the child has with each parent, any siblings, any stepsiblings, and others in the home;
- How well the child is adjusted to his or her current home, community, and school;
- If the child is old and mature enough, the child’s wishes;
- The physical and mental health of all of the parties;
- In all cases that do not involve domestic violence or abuse, whether one parent is likelier to encourage a continuous and meaningful relationship between the child and the other parent;
- Whether a parent misled the court intentionally;
- Whether child abuse or domestic violence has occurred;
- Whether one parent used duress or coercion to secure a parenting time agreement;
- Whether the parents have completed the required parenting classes;
- Whether a parent has been convicted of falsely reporting child abuse;
An experienced child custody attorney can help you weigh the above-factors and apply those to your case. Knowing how each factor works can help you achieve the best outcome possible, either though negotiations with the other party or a formal court proceeding. Contact the family law attorneys at the Law Office of Daniel Hutto PLLC today to further discuss the best interest factors and how they apply to your custody case.
Joint vs. Sole Parenting Time and Legal Decision-making Authority
In Arizona, judges often want to award joint legal decision-making authority and equal parenting time, unless there are parental fitness issues involved which would warrant otherwise. When evaluating the proper custody arrangement, judges are not permitted to make decisions based on their personal preferences, but rather, must decide custody cases based upon the best interests of the children.
Under A.R.S. § 25-403.01, courts can award joint, joint with final authority, or sole legal decision-making authority. When judges render decisions regarding parenting time and legal decision-making authority, they are required to consider all of the best interests factors as well as the following:
- Whether the parents have an agreement about joint decision-making
- Whether the lack of an agreement is due to something that is not included in the best interests of the child factors
- The parents’ ability to cooperate when making decisions that will affect their child
- Whether joint decision-making is logistically feasible
If a parent has sole decision-making authority, he or she will not have to obtain the consent of the other parent before making a decision on behalf of the children. If the parents share joint legal decision-making authority, they must consult with each other before making decisions for the minor children and neither parent’s wishes are superior to that of the other. In a joint legal decision-making scenario where one parent has final authority, if the parents are unable to reach a joint decision after good faith discussions, the parent with final decision-making authority gets to render the ultimate decision.
Parenting Plans and the Best Interests of the Child Standard
Under A.R.S. § 25-403.02, parents who are able to reach parenting-time agreements on their own, can then submit a stipulated parenting plan to the court for final approval. The court will then enter the parenting plan as a formal court order, provided it meets the right criteria and is in accordance with the best interests of the children. If the parents cannot agree to a parenting plan on their own, they can each submit a proposed parenting plan for the court to consider. The court cannot demonstrate a preference for one plan over the other based on the parent’s gender.
Parents who cannot agree on a parenting plan will need to submit their proposed plans to the Court which outline their preferred decision-making orders and regular parenting time schedule. The parenting plan must also include a schedule for school breaks, vacations, and holidays as well as a proposal for how future parenting time disputes will be resolved and reviewed.
Child Custody Modifications and the Best Interests of the Child
Under A.R.S. § 25-411, a parent can file a request with the court to modify the current parenting time and legal decision-making orders. However, a parent cannot request a modification of previously issued parenting time and/or legal decision-making orders unless at least one year has passed since the previous order(s) were issued. A parent can seek a modification prior to the expiration of one (1) year only if something has happened that makes the court believe that the child is in imminent danger or will face irreparable harm to his or her emotional, physical, or mental health.
The court might also modify an existing order if child abuse or domestic violence has happened since the original order was issued, one or both of the parents have violated the order, or the custodial parent’s military deployment calls for a modification of the order.
Like other child custody issues, the court will weigh the best interests of the child factors when deciding whether to grant the requested modification. Speaking with an experienced attorney to evaluate your various options in this regard is always best.
Get Help from the Hutto Law Team
The experienced family law and child custody attorneys at the Law Office of Daniel Hutto can help you to understand the best interests of the child standard and how it might apply to your case. We can help you to decide the type of custody arrangement that might work best for you and your family. Our child custody attorneys are skillful negotiators and can help you to resolve your outstanding disputes about legal decision making-authority and parenting time (custody).
While reaching a negotiated parenting plan is often the best way to resolved child custody disputes, there are some cases in which litigation is more appropriate or necessary. For example, if there is a history of domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse, or mental health issues involved in your case, it might be necessary to litigate the case at a contested hearing in order to protect your child or parental rights. The attorneys at the Law Office of Daniel Hutto have years of aggressive trial experience and can help you navigate any difficult family law case.
Our attorneys can help you figure out the best approach that you should take to achieve the best outcome for you and your children. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation by calling, 602.536.7878.
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