Courts making or evaluating custody awards in Minnesota divorce cases must base their decisions on the best interests of the children involved. Judges can consider any factor relevant to parenting, but do have some guidance from the state’s laws, which set out factors for the judge to consider. Both parents begin with equal rights and responsibilities, and courts may not base a decision on only one factor, such as which parent has been a child’s primary caretaker. A judge must issue a written decision explaining how each factor affects a child’s best interests and what the basis was for the judge’s decision. Factors tend to fall into the following basic categories:
A child’s physical health and safety is always a primary concern. A court will consider any mental and physical health issues affecting safety. A judge will also consider the possible effect on a child of domestic abuse between the parents or between a parent and any other person; a history of domestic violence may lead a judge to suspend visitation or to allow the abusive parent only supervised visitation.
Important emotional considerations include the wishes of a child’s parents, the extent to which a parent has been a child’s primary caretaker, and the strength of the emotional bonds between the child and each parent. If a judge believes that a child is old enough and mature enough to make intelligent and independent choices, the judge may allow the child to state a preference as to custody. Courts generally favor arrangements that maintain continuity and stability, including those that allow a child to stay in the same school and community and maintain relationships with people who are important to the child, such as siblings. A court will consider the length of time that a living arrangement has been stable, as well as whether the stability is likely to continue into the future.
Except in cases where there has been a finding of domestic abuse, a court will consider the extent to which each parent is willing and able to encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent. A parent who interferes with the child’s relationship with the other parent, and in particular, a parent who makes a false allegation of child abuse against the other parent, may receive less custody or visitation time as a result. In considering whether joint custody might be appropriate, the judge will pay close attention to the ability of the parents to cooperate and come to mutual agreement regarding decisions. A judge will want to know whether parents have a successful method for resolving disagreements and whether they are likely to use this method rather than returning to court.
A court may consider each parent’s involvement in a child’s education. This could include things such as helping a child with homework or attending school conferences. If a child has been educated and raised in a particular culture or religion, a court may also consider the ability and willingness of a parent to allow the child to continue participating in established cultural or religious practices.
Custody consists of both legal custody, which refers to a parent’s authority to participate in major decisions affecting a child’s health, education, or general welfare; and physical custody, which refers to the child’s physical presence with a parent. Minnesota law favors joint legal custody if either parent requests it, except in a case where there has been domestic abuse between the parents—this means both parents will continue to be involved in decisions of importance to the child. A judge considering joint custody will pay special attention to how well the parents cooperate with one another and will consider whether there would be any detriment to the child if one parent were to have sole authority over the child's upbringing. Even when parents have joint legal custody, judges may find that it’s in a child’s best interest to have a primary physical home base, and to spend specified periods of time at the other parent’s home.