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

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

Divorce presents many difficulties, and child custody decisions can be the most difficult of all. If divorced parents aren’t able to agree on how to share parenting time or how to raise their children, they must turn to the court for a custody decision.

How North Dakota Courts Decide Custody

North Dakota courts make custody decisions by evaluating what custody arrangement would be in the best interests of the child. The best interests of a child are determined by analyzing a list of factors; the court is supposed to consider all of the factors in making a decision.

North Dakota law recognizes that it is generally best for a child to have a healthy relationship with both parents. Unless there is abuse involved, it is preferable for both parents to encourage the child to have a strong relationship with the other parent.

The best interests of a child include consideration of the emotional ties between parent and child. The higher the degree of love and affection between a child and parent, the more likely it is in the child’s best interest to have a custody arrangement that supports that relationship. Courts will also examine the overall ability of a parent to provide for a child, including a parent’s ability to care for a child with special needs.

North Dakota courts will examine the effect of extended family arrangements, the amount of time a child has lived in each parent’s home, and whether the status quo is the best way to support the child’s proper development or whether a change is in order. If all other things are equal but one parent’s home involves closer proximity to extended family and there’s a close relationship between the child and grandparents or cousins, that parent may win out.

North Dakota law requires courts to look into the moral fitness of a parent as it affects the development of the child, but “moral” is not specifically defined. Courts also look at the physical and mental fitness of each parent as both could affect the development of the child.

The best interests of a child may also include considering the opinions of the child, if the court finds that the child has a sufficient level of maturity to make wise decisions. Examples of evidence that might persuade a court of the child’s wisdom could include age, good behavior, or a strong academic record.

The court may want to inspect a child’s various records to help the judge assess the best custody arrangement. For instance, if a child is doing well in school, it may not be in that child’s best interest to create a custody arrangement that moves the child away from that school.

An incident of domestic violence committed with a dangerous weapon, one resulting in serious bodily injury, or a history of abusive behavior will cause the court to presume that the parent who committed the domestic violence is not fit to have an extended custody arrangement, or “residential responsibility.” It is possible, however, for the parent who committed the abusive behavior to still receive residential responsibility if that parent produces clear and convincing evidence that it is in the child’s best interest for that parent to have custodial privileges. (This would probably mean showing that the parent had taken a parenting course or anger management course and had gained a better understanding of how to control violence tendencies.)

A Final Word

It is preferable for parents themselves to arrive at a suitable custody agreement by putting the child’s interests first. If they are unable to, however, courts will decide child custody issues by considering the child’s interests first.

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