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 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.

Best Practices for Working with a Guardian ad Litem

In some cases, a Guardian ad Litem’s services are a key component.

Imagine the following scenario: a ten-year old child named Jacob is diagnosed with a “curable” form of cancer. If Jacob is brought to a hospital for regular chemotherapy treatments, then Jacob has a chance to beat the disease and live a healthy and stable life. Jacob’s parents, however, are devoutly religious people with the deeply held belief that God and prayer are the only acceptable ways for their child to be cured of cancer. The parents believe that if Jacob is meant to be cured, then God will provide for the cure. As such, Jacob’s parents are refusing any medical treatment for Jacob.

This scenario might trigger a court case, one in which the state of Massachusetts has a special interest in advocating on behalf of Jacob to ensure that he has a chance to beat his disease, even against the wishes of his religious parents.

If a Justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court appoints a Guardian ad Litem to the case involving Jacob, the Guardian must be impartial. He or she investigates or evaluates the family and has a duty to investigate the family’s situation. This investigation may include interviews with Jacob and his parents and home visits. After reviewing the family circumstances, the Guardian ad Litem creates a detailed report to file with the court. The person does not take sides and is supposed to be an impartial third party.

When working with a Guardian ad Litem, it is important to remember certain best practices. First, it is necessary to know that the Guardian ad Litem is not your attorney, and anything that you share with him or her may be reported to the Justice in your case. The person does not need to keep any confidential information that you may believe you are sharing in confidence.

Second, it is also important to remember that you must provide the Guardian ad Litem with accurate information and to share with the Guardian ad Litem any information about other people who may have information in support of your case.

Third, it is important to remember that depending on the circumstances of your case, the investigation or evaluation process with a Guardian ad Litem may take several months. Because the process may be long, it is wise to keep written documentation about what you want to share with the person; what you have shared with the person; when and for how long you spoke with the Guardian ad Litem; and any other information that you think would benefit your case. When you speak with the Guardian ad Litem, you should create a summary or bulleted list of important points that you wish to share, so that you stay focused with your thoughts.

Another item to consider is that there may be a cost associated with the Guardian ad Litem process, which you may be required to pay. Also remember: because the Guardian ad Litem is an impartial person, he or she may seem distant or highly questioning of you. This does not mean that he or she does not believe you or what you’re saying, but rather, it means that he or she is performing his or her due diligence in remaining impartial for the report to be given to the Family Court Justice.

Encourage those with whom you know the Guardian ad Litem will be speak to remain truthful. Provide factual information requested by the Guardian ad Litem, but be sure to speak with your attorney and not the Guardian ad Litem about facts that may or may not hurt your case. If the Guardian ad Litem requests that you sign consent forms to obtain confidential information from professionals, be sure to speak with your attorney before you sign any documentation. After the report is created, you have a right to read the final report. You may not copy the report without permission from the Massachusetts Family Court Judge.

In the above case with Jacob, the Guardian ad Litem will present the facts of the family situation, but the Guardian ad Litem is not a legal advocate of Jacob. Although Massachusetts values religious freedom, this freedom is not limitless when the care of a child with a curable form of cancer is concerned. There are other circumstances when a Guardian ad Litem may be involved such as a divorce, separation, or other matters that affect children or the family unit.

If you are seeking a competent family law or child law lawyer or domestic relations attorney, 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 your phone call or submission promptly, and you may schedule a free consultation with us.

Parental Kidnapping

Approximately 800,000 children annually are reported missing, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics—a staggering 2,000 minors daily on average. Family members account for 203,000, more than a quarter, of these child abductions, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“NCMEC”) claims. In 78 percent of child kidnappings, the offender was the noncustodial parent, according to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (“NISMART”).

Among the reasons cited by parents for violating the custody or visitation rights of their mates by abducting their children are to punish the non-offending parent or to compel reconciliation with the estranged parent. Fear of losing custody or visitation rights, and, in rare instances, shielding the minor from an alleged neglectful or physically or sexually abusive parent, are other reasons underlying parental kidnapping.

Under Massachusetts law, a minor’s relative who takes a child from his or her custodian without lawful authority and intends to hold the youth “permanently or for a protracted period,” is subject to a maximum one year in prison, a thousand-dollar fine, or both. Unlawfully removing the child from the Commonwealth and exposing the minor to danger is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and a maximum five-year prison term.

Often, an accused parental kidnapper also faces a charge of violating a restraining order. Violation of such an order could result in a maximum fine of $5,000 and up to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Criminal liability against a parent as outlined above pre-supposes an existing court-issued custody order concerning the parents’ children. In a 1989 case, a woman took her five- and three-year-old sons from their Massachusetts home and relocated to Puerto Rico ten days before her estranged husband obtained a temporary custody order, unbeknownst to her.

The mother was arrested for parental kidnapping. The Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged the presumption under Massachusetts law that both parents have equal custodial rights of their children. The Court concluded that a parent who takes his or her children from the other parent before any court proceeding has generated a custody order is not acting “without lawful authority” as defined by the Commonwealth’s statute, and cannot be convicted of parental kidnapping.

At the national level, the Federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act requires every state’s appropriate authorities to enforce and not modify (with certain exceptions) any child custody determination made by another state’s court. This full faith and credit provision means that if another state having jurisdiction over a child custody question has pending custody proceedings outside the Commonwealth, a Massachusetts judge, for example, cannot issue a custody order in a non-emergency care and protection hearing involving the same minor without running afoul of the federal Act. The federal statute prevents two states from concurrently assuming jurisdiction over the same custody matter. It considers the resident state of the child or either parent to be the proper forum to resolve the dispute.

Unfortunately, sometimes—especially in particularly contentious divorce proceedings—family lawyers confront false kidnapping claims. Sometimes, these are brought by a vengeful custodial parent against a defendant parent during the latter’s designated visitation period when a child is returned late to the custodial parent. In such instances, experienced divorce counsel can refute spurious accusations through proof that unforeseen circumstances, such as traffic congestion, a delayed or cancelled flight or unexpected injury or illness caused the visitation to exceed the allotted time.

In other cases, noncustodial parents, fearful that their children are targets of physical or mental abuse by the custodial parent, may not return the child after a scheduled visit. When such unilateral action is taken, experienced divorce attorneys will seek relief from the probate court by arguing that the noncustodial parent was acting in the best interest of the child by protecting the youth from an unsafe home environment.

Under Massachusetts law, either spouse in a pending divorce action may petition the Probate and Family Court to issue an order to prohibit the other spouse from imposing any restraint on the personal liberty of the petitioner or his or her minor children during the pendency of the divorce proceedings. Likewise, by statute, a minor over whom a Massachusetts probate court has jurisdiction, either because the child was born, or has resided for at least five years, in the Commonwealth, cannot be removed from Massachusetts without the child’s consent, if he or she is of “suitable age” to give it. If the child is too young to consent, the child cannot be removed without the approval of both parents, unless the Court, upon cause shown, otherwise orders.

If you have any questions about child custody or support or any other issues regarding family law, please contact our firm. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced family law lawyer today. Call our offices at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online.

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.

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.