Best Interest of the Child: What It Is & How To Prove It

The best-interest-of-the-child standard is the basis for custody decisions, regardless of location.

This standard is meant to protect the mental, emotional and physical well-being of a child, and ensure their parents are fit to provide them with the best possible upbringing. It applies whether the judge makes the final decision or parents reach a custody agreement.

The exact factors that the court considers vary, but there are some guiding principles that apply just about everywhere. Before you go to court or reach a settlement with the other parent, find out what the judge will consider to reach a final decision and how you can prove you're fit to parent.

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Best interest of the child definition

There isn't a cut-and-dry definition for the best interest of the child. The term refers to the court's process of deciding who is best fit to care for a child and what actions will benefit the child most. It looks at the child's needs and who is best suited to meet those needs.

For example, if the parent is unfit to be alone with the child, the court will most likely give the other parent sole physical custody and the parent who's unfit could have supervised visitation.

In a way, every court has its own definition. Some states have a statute that lays out specific factors a judge must consider when making a custody decision (more below). Others are more general and let the courts determine which factors to weigh.

How to prove the best interest of the child

You'll need solid evidence to prove you are the parent who can serve the best interest of your child. Consider the following 10 ways to prove your case.

Prepare a parenting plan

Bring a parenting plan proposal to show that you take your child's care and protection seriously. You can draft one on your own or negotiate a plan with the other parent.

Your proposed visitation schedule should be fair to the other parent — unless there's good cause to deny visits. Judges view arrangements that would make visitation difficult or not allow the other parent any visitation time unfavorably.

Also, the change shouldn't be too drastic from the current arrangement. Consider proposing a step-up parenting plan if you have a young child or your child hasn't spent much time with the other parent.

Keep track of your parenting time

The best-interest-of-the-child standard favors parents who spend ample time with their children. Track your parenting time, then print a report you can use as evidence in court. The parent who spends the most time with the child has a better chance to get custody since the child is more familiar with them.

Alternatively, you can use the report as proof that the other parent tries to limit your time with the child.

Maintain a journal to show you meet parenting duties

The child's primary caretaker is looked upon favorably by the court.

Maintaining a custody journal can show the caretaking duties you fulfill. Jot down notes about preparing meals for your child, helping them study, taking them to doctor's appointments, etc. With Custody X Change, you could upload photos and other relevant files to attach to your journal entries.

Keep a log of child-related expenses

Track expenses you pay for daycare, school supplies, clothing and any other costs you incur to further prove your contributions to your child's care. Include receipts to confirm the validity of each purchase.

Get reliable child care

Parents are often unaware that their child care arrangements could play a part in the judge's decision. Make sure your child has a safe, reliable place to go while you're working or any other time you're unavailable.

If both parents are active in their child's life and equally fit to care for them, having a better child care arrangement could sway the judge's verdict.

Ask others to testify on your behalf

Witnesses will be a big part of your case. Ask friends, relatives, your child's teachers — anyone with firsthand knowledge of something that you believe will help your case — to share why they think you're the ideal custodial parent.

This is especially important if you've had troubles with the law or substance abuse. Strong testimony from a professional who knows of your rehabilitation can help demonstrate to the court that you're capable of playing a significant part in your child's life.

Some judges accept character reference letters in which the witness gives their perspective on why a parent is the best fit for custody.

Show that you're willing to work with the other parent

Children benefit most when both parents are part of their life. The parent who shows they're willing to co-parent or let the other parent be part of the child's life is more likely to get custody.

If you believe the other parent is a danger to your child's safety, make sure you have strong evidence to back up your claims. You could face penalties if you make false accusations, and the judge will be more likely to give custody to the other parent.

If you're in a situation where the other parent doesn't allow you to be part of your child's life, you could keep a record of conversations to show when the other parent denied visits or other interactions.

Know your child's interests

Show the court how well you know your child. This could mean knowing their favorite color, what foods they like to eat, which extracurriculars they're involved in, etc. Bring crafts they made for you or photos as evidence to show how close you are.

Have a safe place for your child to live

Make sure you have stable housing. If you don't and the other parent does, they have a better chance at getting custody.

Sometimes the parent who stays in the family home is more likely to get custody. In a divorce, the parent who is awarded custody often gets the family home. It's also an advantage to live nearby your ex as it will make visitations easier and increase your chances of getting a good share of parenting time.

Behave in court

Besides the evidence you present, the judge will consider how you carry yourself in court when making a custody decision. Being disrespectful and interrupting others will leave a bad impression. Don't talk out of turn, follow the judge's instructions and treat everyone in the courthouse with respect.

Best interest of the child checklist

Before you go to court, figure out what factors in your state's best interest of the child test. Common factors across states include:

  • Parental fitness
  • Who has been the child's primary caretaker
  • Parents' histories of crime, violence or substance abuse
  • The parent-child relationship
  • The child's age
  • Ensuring stability in the child's life
  • The child's physical and mental health needs
  • Suspected child abuse, neglect or abandonment

In some states, the judge must consider the child's preference. The older the child, the more weight given to their opinion.

The court may task a guardian ad litem with conducting an investigation to figure out what parenting arrangement would serve the best interest of the child.

Certain states specify things the judge cannot consider when deciding which parent should get custody. For example:

  • Gender cannot be a factor in states including California and Delaware.
  • In Connecticut, the judge must disregard socioeconomic background.
  • Idaho prohibits discrimination based on disability.
  • California, Massachusetts and New York rule out sexual orientation.

See the Child Welfare Information Gateway's publication on how states determine the best interest of the child for a more in-depth look at state-specific standards.

Best interest of the child and parental rights

If the court believes one parent serves the child's best interest more than the other, that parent is most likely to become the custodial parent. This designation often comes with the right to have the majority of parenting time and to collect child support.

If you're the noncustodial parent, it doesn't mean you're the "inferior" parent. The court could've based their ruling on what means less change for your child. If you've demonstrated you're fit to parent, the court might allow you to have equal shared parenting.

Proving that you're fit for custody

To prove to the court that you meet the best interest of the child, you'll need solid evidence.

The Custody X Change online app can help you:

Custody X Change has the tools you need to show the court you have your child's best interest in mind.

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