Child Custody in Hawaii: The Best Interests of the Child

Learn about the "best interests" standard and how it applies to child custody cases in Hawaii.

During a child custody dispute in Hawaii, the court may award custody of the child to one parent or both—or, if the court finds that it is not in the best interest of the child to award custody of the child to the mother or father, the court can award custody to any other stable adult. Hawaii law does not express a preference for either parent in deciding child custody.  Instead, the court must determine what will be in the best interest of the child. The bottom line is that the best interest of the child will guide every decision the court makes with regard to the care and custody of a child who is the subject of a custody dispute.

To determine the best interest of the child, the court may hold a hearing and receive testimony and other evidence. Any person who can present relevant information may testify. Judges, not juries, make decisions about what is in the best interest of the child in Hawaii.

The best interest of the child standard is very broad. Hawaii law provides general guidelines to the court and gives judges a great deal of discretion in determining the best interest of the child.  Unlike many other states, Hawaii does not outline specific factors that are to be considered by the court. In practice, the standard requires that the court consider virtually any factor that could affect the child’s health and well-being. Some common factors that courts consider include: the relationship between each parent and the child, any history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse perpetrated by either parent, the needs of the child, and any history of neglect by either parent.

Hawaii law provides that if family violence has been committed by one parent, a refutable presumption is raised that it is not in the best interest of the child to be placed in that parent’s sole custody or joint custody. The presumption can be overcome by the parent showing that adequate safety measures are in place to protect the child’s physical and mental wellbeing and to protect the custodial parent. 

The court may appoint a guardian ad litem—an attorney or other professional whose job is to represent the interests of the child—if the judge feels the circumstances justify it. Generally a guardian ad litem would be appointed in a case that was complicated or very high-conflict, or that involved allegations of abuse. The guardian ad litem makes a custody recommendation to the court, but the judge is not bound by the guardian ad litem’s recommendation. The judge can also appoint a custody evaluator to investigate and report on the child’s care, welfare, and custody to aid in determining what will be in the best interest of the child. Judges in Hawaii give great weight to the recommendations of the guardian ad litem and other appointed professionals.

In Hawaii, the court can award visitation to any person interested in the child’s well-being if such visitation is in the best interest of the child. 

An existing court order for custody or visitation may be later modified if the modification is in the best interests of the child. 

Hawaii places a great deal of importance on making timely decisions about the placement of children, believing that it is not in the best interest of the child to draw out custody decisions and allow custody cases to languish in the system.

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