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How are a child's best interests determined in custody cases?

In cases where parents with minor-aged children divorce or split up, the family courts may be called upon to make custody and visitation decisions. The "best interest of the child" is a term often used to describe factors the family court takes into consideration when making these decisions. A child's health, safety and well-being are the court's main concern, so a number of issues must be carefully considered and weighed.

Each custody case is handled differently depending on the individual circumstances.

Types of Custody

Let's first look at the types of child custody that may be ordered:

  • Primary custody - one parent has physical custody of the children a majority of the time.
  • Shared custody - parents share legal or physical custody to ensure frequent and continued contact with both parents.
  • Partial physical custody - indicates that one parent has primary custody of the child but gives the other parent the right to have custody of the child for a short period of time (every other weekend for example).
  • Sole physical custody- one parent has exclusive custody of the child and has the right to make all decisions regarding his or her welfare.
  • Visitation- may be granted to ensure that a parent has contact with a child.

Factors considered to determine what is in a child's best interest

"Best interest" is determined at the discretion of the courts but the health and welfare of a child will be the main concern and consideration. The court prefers not to remove a child from parent custody and will only do so as a last resort and with great consideration. The preference is to keep children living with one or both parents.

A court in Pennsylvania will look at the following when making a custody decision:

  • Health and safety of children
  • Location and proximity of parents' households
  • History of abuse and potential continued risk
  • Need for stability and which parent may be better able to provide for that
  • Availability of extended family
  • Relationships with siblings
  • Level of conflict between the parents and their willingness to work together
  • Mental health in one or both parents
  • History of substance abuse of one or both parents
  • Which parent may be more likely to provide a loving and stable environment
  • Which parent may be more likely to encourage contact and a continued open relationship with the other parent

The family courts take a considerable amount of time and care when making child custody decisions. The health, safety and general well-being of a child are the predominant concerns in a custody case, and the court will do everything possible to ensure that child's best interests are being respected and promoted.

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