Child’s Best Interests Standard
One of the most frequently asked questions in family law is how a court determines child custody in contested matters. Under Minnesota law, custody is determined under the “best interests of the child” standard. What does this statutory phrase mean in practical terms? The legislature has identified thirteen factors that a court will use when considering custody, which are summarily set forth below:
- the wishes of the child’s parent or parents as to custody;
- the reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient age to express preference;
- the child’s primary caretaker;
- the intimacy of the relationship between each parent and the child;
- the interaction and interrelationship of the child with a parent or parents, siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interests;
- the child’s adjustment to home, school, and community;
- the length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity;
- the permanence, as a family unit, of the existing or proposed custodial home;
- the mental and physical health of all individuals involved;
- the capacity and disposition of the parties to give the child love, affection, and guidance, and to continue educating and raising the child in the child’s culture and religion or creed, if any;
- the child’s cultural background;
- the effect on the child of the actions of an abuser, if related to domestic abuse, that has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual, whether or not the individual alleged to have committed domestic abuse is or ever was a family or household member of the parent; and
- except in cases in which a finding of domestic abuse has been made, the disposition of each parent to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact by the other parent with the child.
Joint Custody in Minnesota
Additionally, when joint custody (as opposed to sole custody) is sought by one of the parties, four additional factors are considered by the court:
- (a) the ability of parents to cooperate in the rearing of their children;
- (b) methods for resolving disputes regarding any major decision concerning the life of the child, and the parents’ willingness to use those methods;
- (c) whether it would be detrimental to the child if one parent were to have sole authority over the child’s upbringing; and
- (d) whether domestic abuse has occurred between the parents.
With respect to joint custody, unless domestic abuse has occurred between the parents, a court will use a rebuttable presumption that joint legal custody is in the best interests of the child upon request of either or both parties (note that this presumption only extends to legal custody, not to physical custody). However, if domestic abuse has occurred between the parents, then the court uses a rebuttable presumption that joint legal or joint physical custody is not in the best interests of the child.
In applying and weighing the above “best interest of the child” factors, a court is not entitled to use one of the factors to the exclusion of all other factors. For example, many people harbor the misconception that if one parent is the child’s “primary caretaker,” then that parent will automatically be awarded custody of the child. Under the plain language of Minnesota law, this factor alone is not determinative of custody and, in fact, the legislature has specifically provided that the primary caretaker factor cannot be used as a presumption in determining the best interests of the child.
Further, the court is statutorily prohibited from preferring one parent over the other parent solely on the basis of the sex of the parent. While not specifically stated in the statutes, it appears that these specific provisions were enacted in order to eradicate traditional, gender-based stereotypes in making custody determinations.
Custody: Mothers vs. Fathers
Dads, don’t assume you have no shot at custody. Moms, don’t assume you will get custody solely by virtue of being a mom. As written, the law does not have a gender bias, so traditional roles for mothers and fathers should have no bearing on custody determinations.
Child Custody in Minnesota
Child custody can be one of the most contentious issues that a parent will face. It is important for any parent to have an advocate who understands the complexities of this area of the law and can articulate to the court what is in the best interests of the child.
- For laws outside of the state of Minnesota, see the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families’ webpage, “Determining the Best Interests of the Child: Summary of State Laws“.