What Does “Best Interest of a 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 interests 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.

Family court judges use the best interests of the child factors to make decisions about parenting time, custody, and modification requests. If you are involved in a dispute about the custody of your child, the attorneys at the Schill Law Group can help you to understand how this standard might be applied in your case.


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 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 of the child. Legal custody refers to which parent will have the authority to make decisions for the child. These two issues are 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 with the outcome when they can reach negotiated agreements with the help of their lawyers instead of leaving the decisions up to the court.

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 sole parenting time with limited or supervised visits for the other parent.
  • Each parent could be granted sole decision-making authority over different types of decisions with shared parenting time.
  • Both parents could be granted joint parenting time and shared decision-making authority.

In some cases, the parents will not be able to agree on parenting time and decision-making authority. If this happens, the court will listen to the evidence and issue orders about the issues for which the parents were unable to agree. When the court makes the decision, the judge will follow the best interests of the child standard.


What is Arizona’s standard for Best Interests of the Child?

The best interests of the child standard are codified at A.R.S. § 25-403, which includes the factors that the courts are expected 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;

In any child custody dispute that is handled by the court, these are the factors that the judge will be required to consider before making his or her decisions. When custody is disputed, the judge will also be required to make specific findings of each of the relevant factors that led to his or her decision.

You need to keep the factors that the courts consider in mind when you try to negotiate with your child’s other parent about parenting time. The factors can help to give you a better understanding of whether the court might grant you primary custody in a contested hearing. You can also use the factors to help to shape your parenting plan.


Joint vs. Sole Parenting Time and Legal Decision-making Authority

In Arizona, the courts are not supposed to have a preference for one type of custody. This means that a judge should not prefer joint vs. sole custody but should instead make his or her decision based only on what is in the best interests of the child. Under A.R.S. § 25-403.01, courts can award joint or sole legal decision-making authority. When they make their decisions about the type of custody to order, they are supposed to consider all of the best interests of the child factors as well as the following factors:

  • 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 is granted sole decision-making authority, he or she does not have the power to change the court-ordered parenting plan on his or her own. Legal decision-making authority allows the parent or parents to make important decisions about their child’s education, religion, and health care.

If a parent has sole decision-making authority, he or she will not have to talk to the other parent before making a decision. If the parents share decision-making authority, they must consult with each other before making decisions for their child.


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 can submit a stipulated parenting plan to the court. The court will then issue the plan as the court’s order. If the parents cannot agree to a plan, they can each submit a proposed parenting plan for the court to consider. The court cannot have a preference for one plan over the other based on the parent’s gender.

Parents who do not agree on a plan will need to submit proposed plans about the decision-making authority of each parent for the child’s medical care, religious upbringing, and education.

The parenting plan should also include a schedule with details about where the child will be during vacations and holidays. They should also include a proposed schedule for visitation and how disputes will be resolved.

The plan should include information about how violations will be handled and provide for reviews of the plan. Each parent will have to sign a notice and agree that they understand that joint parenting time is not necessarily equal.


Child Custody Modifications and the Best Interests of the Child

Under A.R.S. § 25-411, a parent can file a request to modify a previously issued child custody order with certain limitations. People cannot ask for a modification of a previously issued order unless at least one year has passed since the previous order or something has happened that makes the court believe that the child is in imminent danger in terms of 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 consider the best interests of the child factors when deciding whether to grant the requested modification.


Get Help from the Custody Attorneys at the Schill Law Group

The experienced family law and child custody attorneys at the Schill Law Group can help you to understand the best interests of the child standard and how it might apply to your situation. We can help you to decide the type of custody arrangement that might work best for your family. Our child custody attorneys are skillful negotiators and might help you to resolve your outstanding disputes about custody and parenting time.

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. 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 better to litigate the case through a contested hearing.

Our attorneys can help you to figure out the approach that you should take. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation by calling us at 480.525.8900.