Child Custody in South Dakota: The Best Interests of the Child

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

In any custody dispute between divorcing parents, South Dakota judges are required to make a “balanced and methodical” assessment of what is in the best interests of the child. The court will consider several factors to determine what is best for the child mentally, physically, and emotionally. Factors include the fitness and stability of each parent, which parent has been the primary caretaker, the quality of the communication between the parents, and which parent is more likely to encourage a relationship between the child and the other parent. The court may consider the child's preference if the child is old enough and mature enough to state a preference. The court will also look at whether there is a history or risk of neglect or child abuse by either parent.

Assessment of Best Interests

In any custody dispute between divorcing parents, South Dakota judges are required to make a “balanced and methodical” assessment of what is in the best interests of the child. The court will consider several factors to determine what is best for the child mentally, physically, and emotionally. Factors include the fitness and stability of each parent, which parent has been the primary caretaker, the quality of the communication between the parents, and which parent is more likely to encourage a relationship between the child and the other parent. The court may consider the child's preference if the child is old enough and mature enough to state a preference. The court will also look at whether there is a history or risk of neglect or child abuse by either parent.

Order for Child Custody

The judge will then make an order for physical custody and legal custody of the child. The parent with legal custody may make decisions about the child's health, education, and welfare; legal custody may be awarded to one parent (sole custody) or both parents (joint custody). If the court orders joint legal custody, both parents will have full parental rights and responsibilities and they must work together to make major decisions for the child.

If it orders sole legal custody, the parent with legal custody is required to keep the other parent informed about the child's school and medical information. Physical custody may also be awarded to one or both parents, however, a judge in South Dakota will generally order physical custody to the parent with whom the child lives most of the time. The other parent is called the noncustodial parent and will have visitation with the child on  a regular basis. Once the judge makes a decision, the parents cannot change the custody or visitation schedule unless they agree or show a "substantial change of circumstances" such as a move to another city or state.

Visitation

If the parents agree on a custody and visitation plan, they may submit that plan to the court before the custody hearing. The plan should list how the parents plan to divide responsibilities for the child, including where the child will live, the child's doctor and dentist, and where the child will go to school. The plan should also include a detailed visitation schedule that accounts for weekends, midweek visitation, holidays, and school vacations. For example, the child may visit the noncustodial parent on alternate weekends, for two nights during the week, or for one week each month. Or, the child may spend a particular holiday, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, in odd years with one parent, and in even years with the other parent. As long as the proposed plan is in the best interests of the child, the judge will likely adopt the plan as an order of the court.

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