What Does “Best Interest Of The Child” Mean In California Law?

When a California court makes a custody order, the overriding legal standard it uses is the “best interest of the child.” But what does this mean? How does the judge make this determination?

Deciding what is in the “best interest of the child” might seem like a slam dunk. A parent tends to think and earnestly believe that the custody/visitation arrangement they propose is in the best interest of the child. What other reason could there be for requesting it?

Oh, you might say, in the case of “some,” the reason they are asking for a particular custody/visitation plan is because (a) they are being manipulative, even vengeful, or (b) they are misguided and don’t understand what is best for the child (as I do).

And you may be right….or not. But what is critically important from a legal standpoint is what will the court think?

How Does The Judge Decide What Is In The Best Interest Of The Child?

California Family Code section 3011 directs the courts to consider these factors (and any other relevant factors) when determining what custody arrangement is in the best interest of the child:

  • Health, safety, and welfare of the child
  • Any history of domestic abuse by one parent
  • Nature and amount of contact between parents
  • Habitual, continued use of controlled substances; habitual, continued abuse of alcohol or prescribed drugs

Assuring the health, safety and welfare of the child is the court’s primary concern according to Family Code section 3020.

Another important priority mandated by section 3020 is for courts to assure “frequent and continuing contact with both parents” and to encourage parents “to share rights and responsibilities of child-rearing” except where it is not in the child’s best interest.

As a result, the court’s decision regarding custody and visitation is often a complex process. The judge must make a determination that time spent with each parent is in the best interest of the child and promote frequent and continuing contact with both parents.

How Will The Judge Decide The Custody/Visitation In My Case?

If a child’s safety is obviously at risk in one parent’s custody, the court will not award custody to that parent. However, if appropriate and possible, the court will order supervised visitation to assure frequent and continued contact while also assuring the child’s health, safety and welfare.

Often, however, the matter is not black and white. It is important to remember that the court’s mandate is NOT to choose who is the better parent and award custody to him or her. The court’s mandate is to ensure that both parents have frequent and continuing contact with the children as long as neither is found to be an unfit parent.

Determining The Best Custody/Visitation For Your Children

From the perspective of the State of California, its courts, as well as mental health professionals, the best interest of the child is to have continuing contact with both parents in a low-conflict environment. But that is often easier said than done.

At Shoreline Legal Group, we deeply care about the children and the effect that divorce and custody disputes have on them. We are committed to helping parents work out custody/visitation arrangements that are in the best interest of the children. We can draft parenting plans or assist you in requesting a modification of a custody order if you determine that is appropriate. We offer limited scope services at affordable flat rates. Contact us today.