How Are a Child’s Best Interests Determined in a Family Law Case?

Child custody disputes can be some of the most difficult and contentious family law cases. When parents get divorced, unmarried parents choose to separate, or the parties in a paternity case need to address their legal rights toward a child, they will often disagree about how to share in the rights and responsibilities of raising their children. If parents cannot reach an agreement about how to resolve these issues, they may need to go to court, where a judge will make the final decisions about child custody.

When addressing these matters, family courts use what is called the “best interests of the child” standard. This means that the decisions should be made based on what would be best for a child’s physical and emotional well-being. However, determining how to resolve matters in a way that protects children’s best interests can often be a complicated matter, and parents will likely disagree about whether certain decisions will truly be best for their children. The best way to protect your rights and advocate for your children’s best interests is to work with an experienced DuPage County child custody lawyer during your case.

Legal Custody Vs. Physical Custody

The first thing to understand when addressing legal issues related to parents and children is what exactly is meant by the term “custody.” While each state has its own laws and terminology that apply to these cases, custody is generally grouped into two separate categories: legal custody and physical custody.

In Illinois, legal custody is referred to as the “allocation of parental responsibilities.” This refers to the right to make important decisions about a child’s life, health, and welfare. These include decisions about a child’s education, such as where they will go to school and whether they will attend any special programs or work with tutors, as well as matters related to medical care, such as the doctors who will treat a child and the therapies or medications they will receive. Legal custody may also involve decisions about religion and the activities a child will participate in, such as sports or music lessons.

Physical custody, which is known as “parenting time” in Illinois, refers to the actual time parents spend with children in their care. While this form of custody usually involves regular overnight stays in a parent’s home, it may also include shorter visits that lass less than a day, long-term visits that require travel to a parent’s home in a different state or region, and vacations or holidays. Typically, a parent will have the rights and responsibility to provide the care children need during their parenting time, including meeting their nutritional needs and making decisions about any emergency medical care that is needed.

Joint Custody Vs. Sole Custody

In most cases, family courts prefer to have parents share custody of their children. Joint legal custody may mean that both parents will be given equal decision-making responsibility, or certain areas of responsibility may be allocated solely or primarily to one parent. Usually, both parents will have the right to access information such as children’s medical records or school records, unless there is reason to put restrictions in place, such as a history of child abuse by one parent.

Even if one parent is awarded sole legal custody of a child, both parents will usually have the right to share in physical custody. Even if one parent will have the majority of physical custody, the other parent will usually be able to have reasonable amounts of parenting time with their child, unless doing so would put the child at risk of physical, emotional, or moral harm. In some cases, restrictions may be put in place during a parent’s parenting time, such as requiring them to refrain from using alcohol or drugs while children are in their care. If necessary, visits with a parent may be supervised to ensure that children will be safe.

Factors Considered in Child Custody Cases

Because parents will usually each have their own wishes and expectations regarding child custody, determining how to find an arrangement that will provide for children’s best interests can often be a complex matter. Usually, a judge will want to find a solution that will allow children to have a close, ongoing relationship with both parents while ensuring that parents can work together to meet their children’s needs. Some of the issues that may be considered when making decisions about child custody include:

  • The parents’ wishes
  • The children’s wishes, if they are mature enough to be able to express their desires
  • The children’s ongoing needs
  • The physical and mental health of the parents, the children, and any other parties who may be involved
  • The parents’ past history of making decisions about children and participating in childcare or other child-related activities
  • The parents’ ability to work together to provide for their children’s best interests, as well as each parent’s willingness to encourage and promote the children’s relationship with the other parent
  • The distance between the parents’ homes and issues that affect the ability to transport children between homes, including parents’ work schedules and children’s schedules for school and activities
  • Any history of abuse toward children or other family members by either parent or others who live in their homes
  • Any other relevant factors that affect children’s best interests

Guardians Ad Litem and Child Custody Evaluators

Since each parent will be making arguments for why their desires are in children’s best interests, a judge may not always have enough information to make the final decisions. In some cases, an outside expert will be appointed to investigate the case and offer recommendations about how child custody issues should be handled.

Depending on the issues that need to be addressed, either a guardian ad litem (GAL) or a child custody evaluator may be appointed. A guardian ad litem is an attorney who will advocate for the best interests of the child, while a child custody evaluator may be a psychologist or social worker who has training in child-related family law issues. An appointed expert will conduct an investigation that may involve interviews with the parents and children, visits to the parents’ homes, and reviewing children’s medical records or school records. Following the investigation, the GAL or evaluator will provide recommendations to the judge about how to resolve matters in a way that provides for the children’s best interests.

Working With a Family Law Attorney

Because the legal issues involved in a child custody case can be so complicated, and the decisions made will affect your and your children’s lives for years to come, it is important to obtain representation from a Naperville family law attorney. A lawyer can help you take the right steps to demonstrate that you can protect your children’s best interests, and they can work with you to reach an outcome that will meet your ongoing needs.

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