Facing a divorce with child custody as a factor can be an intimidating experience for parents. No parent looks forward to a judge deciding when they can spend time with their own children, but when parents separate or divorce, it breaks one household into two, making a decision for child custody and parenting time schedules a necessity. Similarly, unmarried parents may require a court’s intervention to define parental rights, determine child custody, and enforce child support obligations.
All Arizona family court decisions uphold a child’s best interests as the highest priority. If you’re facing a child custody dispute, child support orders, modification of existing orders, or a decision for a parenting time schedule, it’s important to understand how the state defines “A child’s best interests,” and all of the factors and nuances a judge considers to make these decisions.
What are the “Child’s Best Interest Factors” in Arizona?
Family court judges face the task of deciding all family court cases in a way that satisfies the standard of decision-making in the best interests of children. This may seem reasonable and easily understood, but divorcing or unmarried parents often have oppositional ideas about what is in the best interests of their children. Understanding the factors a judge takes into consideration when making any family court decision can help a parent present their case in the most favorable light. Arizona’s best interest factors for children include the following:
- A child’s past, present, and future relationship with each parent
- Each parent’s wishes for legal decision-making
- The wishes of the child if they are of an age and maturity to meaningfully express their preferences
- The closeness of the child’s relationship and accustomed daily interactions with each parent
- The child’s relationship with siblings and/or step-siblings
- The child’s connection with their community, school, and extended family members
- Any special needs a child might have
- The physical and mental health of both parents and children
- Each parent’s willingness to support the other parent’s continued close contact with the child
- Allegations of child neglect, child abuse, or exposure to domestic violence
- Whether or not a parent has willfully made false accusations against the other in order to sway the court in their favor during a custody process
It takes clear, precise, and strong arguments to convince a judge that your preferred outcome in a custody case is in the child’s best interests.
Reflecting The Child’s Best Interests in a Parenting Time Schedule in Arizona
Arizona family courts begin each child custody decision with the presumption that a joint custody arrangement as close to 50/50 as possible is in the child’s best interest. However, this presumption is rebuttable under certain circumstances. It’s up to each parent to present evidence to a judge to persuade the court that their proposed child custody/visitation (now called “parenting time”) is in their child’s best interest. The Arizona court prefers that parents reach a mutually acceptable parenting time agreement under one of many workable suggested schedules.
The courts recognize that children thrive best when both parents cooperate and communicate openly and amicably with each other. When children face exposure to long-term conflict between their parents, they may experience emotional problems like anxiety and depression. A well-executed parenting plan always addresses a child’s best interests.
When choosing an appropriate parenting plan for shared custody in Arizona, parents or the judge should consider the following:
- The child’s age and maturity
- The distance between the parents’ residences
- The strength of the child’s attachment to each parent
- The flexibility of each parent’s schedule and the child’s schedule
- Whether the child has special medical or educational needs
- Where exchanges take place and how well the parents can openly communicate and compromise when making exchanges
- Each parent’s ability to care for the child
- Cultural and religious practices of the parents
Having a written and enforceable parenting time plan is in a child’s best interests because it introduces or maintains stability in a child’s life and consistency in the parents’ schedules. The state offers a variety of workable schedules including those that work best for families with younger or older children. Parents are not limited to choosing one of the suggested parenting time plans. In fact, the court encourages parents to openly communicate and compromise so they can tailor a plan that’s best for their family’s unique circumstances. In most cases, a judge will approve a customized parenting plan if both parents willingly agree to the terms.
Legal Decision-Making Custody and a Child’s Best Interests in Arizona
Because Arizona separates child custody into two categories—physical custody and legal decision-making custody, the court also has the task of assigning one or both parents the right to make important (non-emergency) decisions for a child. This includes decisions regarding medical care, education, travel, religion, and extra-curricular activities. When a judge decides on legal decision-making custody in Arizona, the judgment must meet the standard of being in the best interests of the child. The court always begins with the presumption that shared legal custody for making important decisions is in a child’s best interest.
The best-case scenario occurs when parents agree on how to divide their decision-making custody either through openly communicating and compromising on major decisions, or by splitting the decision-making authority—such as one parent making medical decisions and the other making educational decisions. An Arizona judge will simply sign off on a mutually acceptable agreement for dividing legal custody as long as the following is true:
- The agreement is in the child’s best interests
- Both parents willingly agree to the division
- No parent was coerced into signing the agreement
- The agreement isn’t egregiously unfair to one parent
- The agreement remains consistent with any pre-determined limitations, such as in cases of child neglect, child abuse, or domestic violence situations.
If parents cannot arrive at a mutually agreeable decision for legal decision-making custody, a judge will decide based on each parent’s history of making important decisions for the child and whether or not the parents demonstrate a willingness to cooperate with each other.
A judge may order one parent alone to have legal decision-making custody of a child only if both parents oppose a joint decision-making agreement or if the court has imposed a limit on one parent’s authority due to child abuse, neglect, or in some cases of parental addiction. An Anthem child custody lawyer can offer a free consultation to evaluate the circumstances impacting your case for custody.