Child Custody in Florida: Best Interests of the Child
Learn about the "best interests" standard and how it applies to child custody cases in Florida.
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When divorcing parents come into court for a decision on parenting arrangements, judges in Florida base their decisions on the best interests of the child. While a judge will assess every situation individually, Florida law recognizes that children generally benefit from maintaining frequent contact with both parents and from having both parents participate in parental decision-making after divorce. Neither parent begins with any greater right to custody. Judges can consider any factor relevant to parenting, and are guided by some factors that are set out in the state’s laws—generally falling into the following basic categories:
Health and Safety
Florida’s policy in favor of shared parental responsibility will not apply if a court finds that it would be detrimental to the child. Parents may lose custody or visitation rights if there’s evidence of domestic or sexual violence, or evidence of child abuse, abandonment, or neglect. It’s also possible for a judge to order supervised visitation. Other factors a court may consider in assessing a child’s health and safety include the mental and physical health of the parents or evidence of substance abuse within a parent’s home.
Emotional and Developmental Needs
Judges expect parents to put the needs of their children first, before their own. A court will consider the extent to which each parent has demonstrated an ability and desire to meet a child’s developmental needs and be involved in the child’s life. This might include evidence that the parent knows the child’s friends, teachers, and medical care providers; is aware of the child’s daily activities and favorite things; and has participated in the child’s school and extracurricular activities. The court will also consider each parent’s ability to provide routines for the child, including consistent discipline and daily schedules for homework, meals, and bedtime, and the extent to which each parent participated in parenting tasks prior to the divorce. Courts favor arrangements that maintain stability and minimize disruption. A judge will consider the impact of frequent travel between the homes of the parents, particularly when the children are young. A judge who believes that a child is old enough and mature enough to make intelligent and independent choices may allow the child to state a preference as to custody.
Co-Parenting and Communication Skills
Florida law places a strong emphasis on the ability of each parent to encourage a positive relationship between the child and the other parent. The court will assess each parent’s ability and willingness to honor the time-sharing schedule, and to make reasonable adjustments without resorting to court intervention. A court will also consider each parent’s ability to communicate with the other parent, to keep the other parent informed of the child’s activities and other issues, and to adopt a unified front regarding major issues. A court might reduce a parent’s custody or parenting time if the parent provides false evidence of domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, child abandonment, or child neglect against the other parent. Parents are also expected to protect a child from the stress of divorce, including refraining from making disparaging comments about the other parent in front of the child.
Florida law provides that the moral fitness of a parent is a factor in determining the best interests of a child. Moral fitness generally refers to circumstances that might affect a child’s moral and ethical development—for example, substance abuse, frequent casual relationships with multiple partners, verbal abuse, or illegal behavior. Whether or not a court might consider the behavior of an adulterous parent during the marriage would depend upon whether such behavior had a significant negative impact upon the child.
Custody consists of both legal custody, which refers to a parent’s responsibility for making major decisions concerning a child’s health, education, or general welfare; and physical custody, which refers to the child’s physical presence with a parent. Florida law favors joint legal custody unless there is evidence that this would be detrimental to the child. Parents are free to divide responsibilities between themselves over matters of education, health care, or other aspects of a child’s welfare, provided that the division is consistent with the child’s best interests. A court may also grant sole legal custody to one parent, with or without time-sharing with the other parent. A judge granting joint legal custody may also decide that the child should spend approximately equal amounts of time with each parent, or may find that it is better for the child to have one primary physical home and to spend specific periods of time at the home of the other parent. There is no presumption either in favor of or against any specific time-sharing schedule in a parenting plan.
Florida law requires parents who will share time with minor children to have written parenting plans. In order for a plan to be approved by the court, it must include, at a minimum, details of the following:
- a plan for sharing responsibility for daily parenting tasks
- the child’s time-sharing schedule
- a designated address for school registration and other activities; and
- a specification of methods and technologies that parents will use to communicate with the child.
- a designation of who will be responsible for health care and school-related matters