What is the "Best Interests of the Child" Standard?
When a family law proceeding involves children, there is almost certainly heard argument over what is in the “best interests of the child.” Anyone involved in such a case should familiarize themselves with the standards by which their child’s “best interests” will be judged.
What Does “Best Interests of the Child” Mean?
The phrase “best interests of the child” is a short-hand way of describing the standard or test that the court will apply when making decisions (such as custody) that significantly affect the livelihood of a child. Despite its ubiquity in the arena of family law, however, even attorneys are often unclear as to what it truly means, how it will affect their client's case, and when it will be applied.
The following sections outline some of the areas of family law in Washington State where the standard will (and will not) be applied as well as provide some detail as to how the standard is applied differently based upon the proceeding in question.
In the context of parenting plans, the “best interests of the child” standard is applied liberally and permits the court leeway to ensure the child is protected.
According to the Revised Code of Washington Section 26.09.187, "the best interests of the child control when determining a parenting plan." What that means, as a practical matter, is that courts consider the interests of the divorcing parents to be secondary to the interests of their children. For instance, a parent could be excluded from a parenting plan entirely, against his/her wishes, if the court decides his/her involvement is not beneficial to the child.
The court applies the same standard when considering a modification of a parenting plan or assessing whether one parent should have limited decision-making authority related to the child.
Establishing Parentage (Paternity)
In some parentage cases, a child or alleged parent is ordered to undergo genetic testing. The courts can also deny genetic testing to prove or disprove parentage if it is deemed in “the best interests of the child.”
For parentage proceedings, the factors used to assess what is in the child's best interests are explicitly laid out (and, therefore, the court is somewhat more constrained in this setting). The factors include:
- The length of time between the parentage proceeding and the time that the presumed or acknowledged parent was placed on notice that he or she might not be the genetic parent
- The length of time during which the presumed or acknowledged parent has assumed the role of parent of the child
- The facts surrounding the presumed or acknowledged parent’s discovery of his or her possible nonparentage
- The nature of the relationship between the child and the presumed or acknowledged parent
- The age of the child
- The harm that may result to the child if parentage is successfully disproved
- The nature of the relationship between the child and any alleged parent
- The extent to which the passage of time reduces the chances of establishing the parentage of another person and a child support obligation in favor of the child
- Any disruption in an established parent-child relationship.
Changing the Name of a Child
Often, when parents are going through divorce proceedings, they do not consider whether the surnames of their children will be changed after the divorce. Because a name change can have an emotional effect on a child, the court is required to decide if such a change is in the child's best interest.
In making this assessment, the court takes into account the following factors:
- The child's preference
- The effect of the name change on the preservation and the development of the child's relationship with each parent
- The length of time the child had a given name
- The degree of community respect associated with the present and the proposed surname
- The harassment, embarrassment, or difficulties the child might experience with the present or proposed surname
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the court does not apply the "best interests of the child" standard when considering whether a child should be allowed to be moved to a different state or jurisdiction. Instead, the Child Relocation Act, which governs the relocation of a child in Washington, outlines 11 specific factors for the court to consider.
Non-Parent Custody and De Facto Parentage Proceedings
A non-parent must meet a high burden to be given custody over a child. As a result, generally, it is insufficient to merely show that the non-parent taking custody of the child would be in the child's "best interest.” Read more on how the court decides non-parental custody.
For more information concerning family law proceedings that affect children or what the "best interests of the child" standard could mean for your case, contact a McKinley Irvin family lawyer.
- Child Custody