Best Interest of the Child Part 3

In our two prior installments on this topic (Part 1 and Part 2), we have been looking at what the Florida courts consider when determining the “best interest of the child.”  While most states use this standard, Florida has very specific criteria to determine time-sharing based on the best interest of the child.  These criteria are set out in the Florida statutes. We have previously discussed health and safety issues, then the importance of maintaining the bonds between parent and child in a positive manner.

This time we discuss the emotional and developmental needs of the child, time-share (custody) options and parenting plans.

Emotional and Developmental Needs of the Child

Florida expects parents to put the needs of their child first.  This is demonstrated by the desire and ability to meet the child’s developmental needs and be an active participant in the child’s life.  Does the parent know the child’s teachers, friends (even the imaginary ones!) and preferences.   Are they aware of the child’s daily activities?  Do they know the child’s doctors and any medical issues that arise or are cause for concern?  It may seem silly, but are they involved enough to know the child’s favorite color, or television show, or any other favorite thing?  Does the parent actively participate or attend the child’s school functions or extracurricular activities, such as games or dance recitals?  Evidence of these things is important when establishing the extent and closeness of the existing relationship of parent and child.

Keeping an established routine is an important part of a child’s development, and the courts look favorably on environments that foster routines.  Is there a consistent schedule of school, homework,  mealtimes and bedtimes?  The court will look to the ability and desire of a parent to create and maintain these routines, as they seek to minimize disruption of a child’s life during this difficult time.  The court will also look at such things as the time to travel between parents’ homes, as this can be rough on very young children.

Custody and Time-sharing Options

There is a distinction between legal custody and physical custody, which is not always easy to figure out.  Legal custody means the parent is responsible for making decisions regarding the child’s health, education and welfare.  The terms Florida uses are shared parental responsibility or sole parental responsibility.  Florida prefers the parents have shared parental responsibility (joint legal custody), unless such situation would be detrimental to the child.  With shared parental responsibility, both parents are engaged in making the important decisions regarding the child.  Where the court has determined that shared parental responsibility would be detrimental to the child, sole parental responsibility may be granted to one parent, and there may or may not be time-sharing allowed for the other parent.  A judge may order supervised visits if there are issues with the parent which would be detrimental to the child, or in extreme cases, a court may dictate no contact with the child.

Physical custody determines the physical presence of a child with a parent.  The court may determine that it is best for the child to have a primary physical home and spend a certain amount of time at the other parent’s home.  This is especially true with very young children.

When the parents can agree on a time-sharing plan, and implement it accordingly, the court will often approve the plan.  The parents may even split up the responsibilities, for example, one parent making school decisions, the other making medical decisions.  As long as this arrangement does not work as a detriment to the child, the court usually agrees with the plan.

The courts understand that each family is unique, and these situations are determined on a case-by-case basis, always looking to the best interest of the child.

Parenting Plan

Many states, including Florida, are now requiring submission of a parenting plan as part of the divorce.  A stipulated parenting plan is one to which both parents have agreed in writing, and judges often approve these readily, provided that “best interest of the child” standard is met.  A proposed parenting plan is one which is presented by one parent to the court, and that may be approved or modified as the judge sees fit.  Of course, it is always best if the parents can successfully come up with a suitable parenting plan that each can live with, but we know that this isn’t always the case.  Then the judge steps in to impose their view of what is best for the child.

The Parenting Plan should address such things as:

  • the amount of time each parent will spend with the child (residential and visiting schedules)
  • school related matters
  • responsibility for day to day parenting tasks
  • address for school registration
  • holidays and vacations
  • transportation
  • special events
  • information sharing

It might not be a bad idea if the Parenting Plan also included things such as:

  • religious upbringing/activities
  • discipline approach
  • relocation guidelines
  • communication guidelines
  • medical insurance and care
  • travel guidelines
  • expenses not covered by child support

While it may be impossible to anticipate every little thing that will come up over the course of the child’s life during the time the parenting plan is in effect, it certainly paves the way for a more positive experience.  If the parents can agree up front on these issues, reduce it to writing and use it as their guide, the court will be quite happy with the way they have chosen to conduct their divorce.

Final Thoughts

Divorce is tough on everyone, but most especially the children of the parties.  The Florida legislature has attempted to ensure that the children of divorce are not victims of divorce.  The “best interest of the child” standard is very clearly laid out, and judges have wide discretion in this matter.

Keep in mind that life is an organic thing.  What worked when you first divorced may not be manageable in your present circumstances.  A previously fit parent may be struggling with substance issues, or circumstances have otherwise changed and the parenting plan needs to be modified.  Know that the agreements and orders are not necessarily written in stone, and that in some cases, by a showing of good cause, they can be modified.  What was previously thought to be in the best interest of the child may not be true now, and courts realize this.

If you are thinking about divorce, or need to have a previous order or parenting plan modified, you need to know your rights and responsibilities.  An experienced, dedicated Family Law attorney can help guide you through the maze of laws as they apply to your situation.