The Best Interest of the Child Standard

When embroiled in a divorce, children play an important factor in many decisions such as child custody and child support. As these issues can greatly impact a family, our family law attorneys educate parents and soon-to-be-divorcees on how the court views these important issues.

Child custody decisions can create a lot of tension for children, divorcing parents, and overall family dynamic. Our family law attorneys know how daunting this can be—possibly, you won’t be seeing your children every day, and the amount of time you have with them is becoming uncertain. In this post, we will be highlighting the “best interest of the child” standard, which is an integral part of the court’s decision and a common standard at the heart of child custody decisions.

If you and your former spouse are unable to reach an amicable agreement regarding child custody, your family’s future will be determined by a judge. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the judge takes a deeper look into a child’s lifestyle and what would be best suited for the child when making this decision. Instead of investigating what may be best for each parent, the judge solely focuses on the child. As every divorce is different, the “best interest of the child” standard is viewed is on a case-by-case basis. Because children have different needs, and family situations are wide-ranging, the courts of the Commonwealth take a fact-specific approach when determining what is in a child’s best interest.

Massachusetts courts and law encourage a custody arrangement where the parents share both legal and physical custody. Physical custody determines where a child’s primary residence is, and legal custody involves important decisions made for a child. These can be decisions regarding medical issues, religion, and education, just to name a few. Generally, if one parent is being granted sole custody in either of these areas, the court finds that financial instability, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other toxic situations negatively impact a child’s upbringing. As the primary caretaker for a child, a sole custodian will make all of the major decisions for the child.

As a parent, you may be wondering what factors go into what the court defines as the “best interest of the child,” since it is so fact-specific. While the standard is not exact, the court does look at several areas in determining what is in the best interest of your child. Factors include a child’s health, safety, and general quality of life. If your child has a physical or mental disability, the court will look into what would be best for the child’s situation. Also, if you have multiple children, the court often wants to keep families intact, so it likely the judge will want to keep siblings together.

Even though the court is generally focused on the child, your ability to parent is crucial in determining in what is in the best interest of the child. As noted above, the court does not want to place a child in a toxic situation. While more extreme issues such as substance abuse and criminal activity will be examined, the court can also look into your physical and mental health, work schedule, parenting style, and the type of home environment you provide. If the court finds that these factors positively impact your child and their development, it may be more likely to provide you with custody.

As these are incredibly broad areas, the judge can choose to determine this standard as he or she sees fit. Often, this information allows the judge to make a decision based on how fit a parent is to be a stable, supportive caretaker for their child. Since there are so many angles a judge can take regarding what is in your child’s best interest, our family attorneys can help you prepare for this area of divorce to do what is best for your children. As you will likely need to testify to a judge why you should be rewarded custody, our attorneys will adequately prepare you, so you are awarded custody of your child.

If you need more information surrounding the best interest of the child standard, child custody, or family law generally, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form and we will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

The Intersection of Immigration and Family Law

Many natural born citizens in the United States take for granted the ease of navigating the legal system as a United States citizen. This assertion is especially true in comparison to the ease of navigating the legal system for non-naturalized citizens. Many citizens do not understand the significant role that one’s citizenship status plays in the family law context, such as the ability to marry, divorce, obtain custody of children, and obtain financial support from another person. Citizenship carries many benefits within the family law context. There are, however, ways for all people to navigate the legal system to understand family law and the intersection of it with immigration.

The law values the family unit and the protection of children, and family law in particular has the power to affect society and the family unit. Family law also has the potential to encompass other cornerstone issues of law as well, such as family law issues involved with immigration. Given the sensitive nature of this issue–as well as its timeliness–it is important to understand the intersection of family law and immigration law.

Each of the following scenarios includes family law and immigration law issues:

  1. Hovhaness was born in the United States. He met a woman named Agnes who was born in Armenia and arrived to the United States as a teenager. The two had one child together. Years after their son was born, Agnes decides that she wants to return to Armenia to be with her elderly parents. She wants to bring their child. Is she able to? Does Hovhaness have any rights to the custody of the child?
  2. Joshua and Jonathan are a same-sex couple. Only one of them is a citizen of the United States. The couple wants to know whether they can legally marry in the United States. If they marry, would they both be citizens?
  3. A former couple, Bobby and Josie, are divorcing. They are parents to two daughters. Bobby wants to move to another country to live. Is he able to do so? Does he have any child support, alimony, or other obligations?
  4. A mother and her two children are refugees from another country. The husband of the woman and father to the children died. The mother wants to know whether she has any recourse, any way to obtain monetary support from her husband’s estate, located in their native country.
  5. Ximena was born in the United States. Her mother and father immigrated to the United States illegally. With growing concern about her family, Ximena wants to know more about her rights and responsibilities. Is she a citizen? If not, it possible for her to become one? Is there a way to make her parents citizens? Imagine that Ximena also has an older brother, but he was born in Mexico. Is he a citizen?
  6. A young woman lives with a United States citizen, a man. He threatens to report her to authorities if she discloses to anyone about the abuse and violence that he perpetrates against her.
  7. Natalie was born in India. She met her husband in India as well. The couple moved to the United States and became legal citizens. Eventually the couple had two children. One day, Natalie’s husband left for India with their children. Does Natalie have any recourse? Would she be able to get her children back to the United States?
  8. A young man marries a United States citizen woman in order to obtain his permanent residence card.

Many immigrant families need legal support that involves family law and their immigrant status or former immigrant status. These issues affect people of different genders, orientations, religions, nationalities, and backgrounds.

Immigrants may need help in the preparation and filing of petitions for alien relatives, adjustment of status, naturalization, and issues involving deportation or removal. A skilled attorney may be necessary to help an immigrant or the citizen in a familial relationship with an immigrant to find the solution to a problem. Marriage visas, green cards, bonds, DACA assistance, other visas, and other statuses may be tools available to you for your specific family law and immigration issues.

If you have questions or concerns about issues about family law, custody, child support, or domestic relations, you should contact a competent family law lawyer. Our divorce, family, and domestic relations attorneys may be able to work on your behalf to handle your case. Please contact our offices by phone at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form on our website. We will respond to you promptly.

The Lifestyle of the Parents as a Factor in Custody Issues

Consider the following hypotheticals involving parents, children, and the lifestyle of the parents:

  1. A Massachusetts judge must decide whether a parent with a history of drug addiction should have custody over the parent’s two children.
  2. One parent, named Justin, is a collector of vintage and modern guns, knives, and other weapons. The other parent owns no guns in her household.
  3. A mother named Jessica maintains an unhealthy lifestyle, often consuming highly processed foods. She feeds the food to her three children. The medical records of the children reveal that two of the three children are obese. The father of the children wants custody of the children. He argues that he has a balanced relationship with food and exercise and states that he would feed the children nutritious fruit, vegetables, and legumes.
  4. Dennis is a father of two boys and wants custody of his sons. He goes out to nightclubs often and occasionally invites female guests overnight. The mother of the two boys is Diane. She dates on occasion, but never brings a partner around her sons, nor does she return home late in the evening.
  5. Derek enjoys smoking marijuana for recreational purposes. His passion for cannabis consumes much of his time. He argues that he would never smoke in front of his daughters. The mother of the daughters is Josie. She struggles with an addiction to opiate pills, but is in recovery.
  6. Nina and Lindsay are both in their twenties and both appear to be physically in shape. Nina exercises about 4 times per week in the morning when she wakes up at 5:00am. Lindsay never exercises – she appears fit. The former partners each want custody of the parties’ son.
  7. Jack likes to hunt and James does not. Jack hunts animals for sport and has previously brought their son Anton with him to measure the weight of dead animals. Jack takes a photograph of Anton posing with a dead animal hunted by Jack. James is outraged that Anton is exposed to dead animals and that Jack allowed Anton to pose with the dead animal.

When a Massachusetts Probate & Family court judge is tasked with the difficult decision of awarding custody to a parent or parents, the judge may consider several factors. A Massachusetts justice may evaluate the unfitness of a parent. A judge may consider whether either parent has a history of abuse or violence. A judge could also determine the child’s health needs and requirements, the residence of the child’s siblings or other relatives, the child’s preference, each parent’s health, and the lifestyle of the parents, including drug and alcohol addiction.

Even if a child has been living with one parent for some time, the lifestyle of the parents may affect the judge’s decision in awarding custody. Massachusetts judges want to ensure that the needs of children are adequately met under that the care of their parents. Judges want to ensure the best interests of a child. If a court determines that it is in the best interest of the child to re-arrange the child’s legal and physical custody, a judge may do so.

In the examples above, a judge may determine that a parent with a history of drug addiction may or may not be an acceptable option for legal or physical custody, given the lifestyle involved with drug addiction and recovery. With regard to the issue of weapons in a home, a judge may determine that if the items affect the lifestyle of a parent then it may be in the best interest of the child to reside with the parent who does not own guns. A judge may determine that children should be with parents who maintain healthy lifestyles. This may extend to food, exercise, and mental fitness. A judge may determine that a nightclub and party lifestyle or a lifestyle heavily involved in the use of any substance, whether legal or otherwise, may not be in the best interest of children. Finally, a judge may determine that a parent who hunts for sport and takes photographs of children is not the type of lifestyle practice that will benefit children in the future, especially because children who witness the abuse of animals become immune to violence and could then harm people in the future. In all of these examples, the lifestyle of the parents will be a factor considered by the court when making custody decisions.

If you have questions or concerns about issues involving family law, custody, child support, and more, you should contact a competent attorney. Our divorce, family, and domestic relations attorneys may be able to work on your behalf to handle your case. Contact our offices by phone at 978-225-9030 during business hours to schedule a free consultation. We will respond to you as soon as possible.

Suitable Residence as a Custody Consideration

Kelly and Ken are divorced and share custody of their three minor children. Kelly maintains a modest, but clean and safe home in a small town, while Ken lives in a one-bedroom apartment. Ken’s building is pretty run-down, and it is located in an area of a large city known for its high crime rates. Kelly is concerned that Ken cannot provide a suitable residence to the parties’ children when they visit with him. First, she is concerned about the children’s safety in Ken’s neighborhood and building; second, she is concerned that the lack of an extra bedroom means the children’s sleeping arrangements are less than ideal. Kelly wishes to petition the court for sole physical custody of the children.

Custody Factors

When addressing issues of custody, the Probate and Family Court judge will look at various factors to determine which parent would be most suitable to have primary physical or legal custody of a child. Making these decisions based on the “best interests of the child standard,” the factors considered are the fitness of the parent, children’s preference, and home environment, among others. In these cases, even if your ex-spouse says your home is unfit, it is ultimately up to a judge to determine what is best for the child.

Suitable Residence Factor

When considering the suitable residence factor in determining child custody, the court may consider whether the living conditions would affect a child’s physical, mental and emotional health. For example, in Ventrice v. Ventrice, the Court reversed a custody award because the judge did not consider the children’s living situation. In that case, the ex-wife’s negligent attitude towards her home environment and safety forced the judge to reverse the initial award. The Court found that the ex-wife’s home was “dirty and unkempt” and she failed to barricade an 80 foot cliff near her home, all things that were not in the best interest of her children.

Additionally, the Massachusetts courts have held that a residence where a child would be taken care of by many different adults would not be in the best interest of the child. In Hunter v. Rose, the Court awarded custody to the parent with a stable job and flexible work hours, rather than to parent who had lived in four different residences in less than one year, with no nearby relatives and five different care providers for daughter. The court believed that this living arrangement would put the child in unfamiliar environment with new caregivers and medical providers while the parent was unavailable, thereby putting in question whether it was a suitable residence. Also, the Court has determined that if the child were to be placed in a stable home environment or in a clean home, this would have a positive effect on a parent’s hopes for physical custody.

On the other side of the coin, the Courts have also held that simply giving a child a high standard of living does not mean custody should be awarded to the parent whose lifestyle allows for a higher standard. For example, in one case, Bak v. Bak, the Court held that stating that material advantage and successful child-rearing do not necessarily go hand in hand. To base custody determination on material advantage would likely punish the less affluent party, the Court stated. In other words, even if your home is nicer than your spouse’s, this in and of itself is not a reason to award custody for you.

However, it is important that the income and resources of a parent are sufficient to provide a proper standard of living and suitable residence for the child. In the hypothetical scenario above, the Court will consider whether it is in the best interests of the children to stay with Ken, in light of the lack of space, safety considerations, and other potential issues with the standard of living that Ken may offer. Of course, the living arrangements will be only one of many different factors that the Court will consider in determining which party should have custody, ultimately basing its decision on what is in the best interests of the child.

If you need more information about issues of child custody or about family law generally, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form and our experienced family law attorneys will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

Visitation Options in Cases of Domestic Violence

Matt and Mary are going through a divorce. Matt alleges that during the marriage, Mary had engaged in a repeated pattern of physical and verbal abuse toward him. The couple had two children together, and the children live with Matt. Both parties want to know whether Mary may have visitation rights with the children.

In other words, the issue is as follows: would a Massachusetts judge allow the person with a history of physical and verbal abuse to have visitation with his or her children?

In Massachusetts, the rights of the parents to have custody of their minor children are generally equal.[1] Courts are concerned with the happiness and welfare of the child, including understanding the ways in which the child’s present or past living conditions affect the child’s physical, mental, moral, or emotional health. Id.

This right is not all-encompassing, however. Massachusetts courts may require that a parent have supervised visitation with children. Supervised visitation means that a “third party is present during the visits to ensure that the child is safe and that the visiting parent acts appropriately.”[2] There are many instances where supervised visitation is appropriate, including “when the visiting parent has a history of abuse toward that child or another child” or “when the visiting parent has a history of abuse toward the other parent.”[3]

As another consideration, an abused parent may continue to suffer abuse by the other parent. In this circumstance, the victim may obtain a restraining order under chapter 209A of the Massachusetts General Laws.[4] A 209A order requests that a Massachusetts judge order that the victim be given custody of the children, but this is rebuttable.

Moreover, the Supreme Judicial Court has held that “where there has been domestic violence between parties, judges must consider the effects that this violence has had on the child before making a decision about custody” and that physical violence is a violation of a basic human right, that is, to live in physical security.[5]

If a parent with custody of children believes that the children are at risk of abuse during visitation, the parent with custody may petition the court to end the visits between the children and the abuser and demonstrate that the visits are not in the best interest of the children.[6] If the parent with custody is at risk of harm, but the children are safe, the parent with custody may seek an order for a supervised exchange of the children.[7]

If you or your child(ren) are in serious or immediate physical danger, you should contact emergency personnel. You may wish to speak with an attorney with competence in this area of the law, and you may schedule a free consultation with our firm. Family law, domestic violence law, intimate partner violence law, and child law are intricate facets of the legal system and your family dynamics. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form and we will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

 

 

[1] Mass. Gen. Laws. ch. 208 § 31

[2] Family Law Advocacy for Low and Moderate Income Litigants, 2nd Edition, 2008 >https://www.masslegalservices.org/system/files/library/Chapter+09+Final.pdf<

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 249

[5] Id. at 254 (citing to Custody of Vaughn, 422 Mass. 590, 595 (1996))

[6] Family Law Advocacy for Low and Moderate Income Litigants, 2nd Edition, 2008 >https://www.masslegalservices.org/system/files/library/Chapter+09+Final.pdf< (citing to Donnelly v. Donnelly, 4 Mass. App. Ct. 162 (1976))

[7] Id.

What is a Parenting Plan?

Benjamin and Sarah are divorcing. They have four children between the ages of 6 and 17. Both parties contest the issue of custody of the children. And, both parties want to establish a plan to share legal and physical custody. The parties want their parenting plan to make sense, so that it reflects the respective ages and developmental stages of their children.

In Massachusetts, when the issue of custody comes up in court and either party wants shared legal or physical custody, either party may file a custody implementation plan with the court. This custody plan should include the details of the shared custody plan, including the following:

  • the child’s education;
  • the child’s health care;
  • procedures for resolving disputes between the parties with respect to child-raising decisions and duties; and,
  • the periods of time during which each party will have the child reside or visit with the parent, including holidays and vacations.

If each party, individually or jointly, submits a parenting plan to the court, the court must consider the custody implantation plan(s). The court can use or modify the plan(s) that the parties submit. The court can also reject the plan and issue a sole legal and physical custody award to either parent.

 

What Makes a Good Parenting Plan?

Massachusetts offers model parenting plans for parties who seek guidance in crafting their plans. The model parenting plan–offered by a task force of judges, probation officers, and mental health professionals–is not mandatory. But, the model parenting plan is a structured and guided approach for allotting the right amount of time that a child is to spend with each parent based on the child’s best interests.

The model parenting plan lists several factors to include when crafting a model plan. These factors include:

(1) level of tension of conflict between the parents;

(2) parenting skills already in place;

(3) child’s physical and emotional health;

(4) child’s temperament and adaptability to change;

(5) child’s developmental age and abilities;

(6) child’s daily schedule;

(7) availability of each parent;

(8) location of both parents;

(9) parent’s ability and willingness to learn basic care giving skills;

(10) sibling groups; and,

(11) close care-taking relationships.

Parents Benjamin and Sarah should evaluate their children’s needs and developmental levels to draft a plan. Then, a court would review their plans and either choose a plan, modify a plan, or establish a new plan that is in the best interests of their children.

Family and child law matters are nuanced and fact-based. Your family law matter is as unique as your family. If you need more information about Massachusetts family law, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form, and our experienced family law lawyers will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.