During a divorce, the issue of how parents will share custody of their children can be one of the most difficult to resolve. Parents can make decisions about whether to share joint custody or whether one parent should have sole custody with visitation to the other, and about how the child’s time will be divided. If the parents can agree, the court will usually approve the agreement. If not, a judge will make the decision.
The law in Rhode Island says that courts should make custody decisions based on a child’s best interests, and outlines the factors to consider. (Pettinato v. Pettinato, 582 A.2d 909 (R.I. 1990)).
Courts will examine the following:
It’s not all that common, but some parents do not want custody, and a judge is unlikely to grant custody to a parent that doesn’t want the responsibility. At the other end of the spectrum, the wishes of a parent who has shown a strong commitment to parenting will carry significant weight. Parents may also agree on a custody arrangement, and the judge will honor the agreement as long as it is suitable for the child.
In order to consider the child’s desires, the court must be convinced that the child has enough intelligence and experience to make a reasonable choice. A mature child may have insight about the home environment and each parent’s parenting style that could be helpful to the judge in making a decision.
It is in the child’s best interest to grant custody to parents who have a strong, healthy relationship with the child. In most cases, children will stay with their siblings. It is also important for a child to maintain healthy relationships with family members who are a positive influence on their life. For example, a court may order a custody arrangement that helps preserve the child’s connection to a loving grandparent.
Courts must consider the overall health of all family members. For example, it is important to have a custody arrangement that takes care of children with special needs. A judge may grant custody of a special needs child to the parent with the most time to attend to the child. A judge may also consider whether a parent has any physical disabilities or mental health issues that would interfere with the parent’s ability to care for the child (if the disability wouldn’t get in the way of parenting, judges aren’t permitted to consider it).
It is best for a child to live where there is the greatest stability and continuity. A stress-filled and unpredictable home environment is not the best place for a child to be.
Moral fitness is not defined, but it is relevant as applied to a child’s development. For example, a judge may hesitate to grant custody to a parent who has repeatedly lied to the court and others.
It is important for parents to work together, and their ability to cooperate will affect the judge’s decision. A judge will consider whether each parent helps strengthen the child’s relationship with the other parent. A judge will not look favorably on a parent who speaks negatively to the child about the other parent.