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Understanding the "best interests of the child"

One of the most widely used terms in Florida divorces involving minor children is the "best interests of the child." Courts use this broad, and not altogether specific, term to decide custody disputes, determine how much child support should be paid and other questions about the post-divorce status of the children. Any couple with minor children who may be contemplating a divorce should be familiar with the basic concepts that govern the best interests of the child.

As may be expected, no specific definition of "best interests of the child" exists. Instead, courts examine a number of relevant factors in reaching their decision. Some of the factors include:

  • The wishes of the child, if the child is old enough to express a reasonable preference;
  • The health of the parents, both mental and physical;
  • Whether the child has any special needs and the ability of each parent to meet those needs;
  • Religious and cultural concerns;
  • The child's need for a stable home environment;
  • The child's interaction with members of the extended family;
  • The degree of the child's interaction with school and community;
  • The age and gender of the child; and
  • How each parent disciplines the child.

One of the most important factors is whether either parent abuses drugs or alcohol. Evidence of excessive discipline or emotional abuse can be a decisive issue in the court's evaluation of which parent is more likely to provide a stable home for the child. And, of course, evidence of child sex abuse by either parent can be decisive.

Most courts use a holistic approach in deciding how to protect and promote the best interests of the child. The list of factors set out above will be applied differently by different judges.

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