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How Are Children’s Best Interests Determined in Family Law Cases?

 Posted on September 27, 2023 in Child Custody

Untitled---2023-09-27T110504.869.jpgIn family law cases involving children, the court's primary concern is always the best interests of the child. When making decisions about the allocation of parental responsibilities and parenting time, judges may consider a variety of factors to ensure that the child's well-being and safety are prioritized. By understanding exactly what issues will be addressed in child custody cases and how they can protect their children’s best interests, parents can make sure they will be prepared to resolve disputes and create agreements that will allow them to meet their children’s needs.

At Weiss-Kunz & Oliver, LLC, we work with parents in divorce and family law cases to address and resolve child custody concerns. We provide guidance on how our clients can protect their parental rights, and we work to negotiate agreements that will allow them to meet their children’s needs going forward. If necessary, we can provide representation during litigation, but we strive to find peaceful resolutions to disputes whenever possible so that parents can focus on protecting their children’s well-being. Our attorneys are here to help with any child custody concerns that our clients may encounter.

Issues Addressed in Child Custody Cases

During family law cases, parents will need to address multiple legal concerns related to their children. These are generally grouped into two categories, which are commonly referred to as legal custody and physical custody.

Allocation of Parental Responsibilities (Legal Custody)

The allocation of parental responsibilities refers to decision-making authority regarding major issues affecting children's lives. This includes decisions about education, healthcare, religion, extracurricular activities, and more. In general, there are two options for handling parental responsibilities:

  • Joint decision-making: In cases where parents have joint legal custody, they will share equal responsibility for making important decisions concerning their children's upbringing. They must consult with each other and work to reach agreements on issues affecting their children.

  • Sole decision-making: In some cases, one parent may have the exclusive right to make major decisions regarding the children's upbringing without consulting or obtaining consent from the other parent.

Courts generally favor joint legal custody unless there is clear evidence showing that it would not be in the best interests of the child. Sole custody will usually only be granted if a case involves factors such as a history of abuse by one parent or high levels of conflict that make it impossible for parents to effectively communicate or cooperate. 

In some cases, a judge may decide that certain areas of responsibility will be granted to one parent, while others may be shared by both parents. For example, if one parent has focused on providing for children’s medical needs, they may be given sole decision-making authority in this area, while other areas of authority may be shared by both parents.

Parenting Time (Physical Custody)

Parenting time refers to any time that a parent will spend with their children. It may include days in which children will stay overnight in a parent’s home, as well as shorter periods of visitation, such as evenings spent with one parent during the week. A parenting time schedule will be determined based on what is in the best interests of the child. 

Most of the time, parenting time schedules will allow children to spend time with each parent regularly. While some families may use equal or “50/50” parenting time schedules, children will often live primarily with one parent while spending time with the other parent every other weekend or on certain days, evenings, or nights during the week.

Sole physical custody may be an option in situations where children could potentially be at risk while they are with a parent, such as when a parent has a history of domestic violence or substance abuse. However, even if the court grants sole legal custody to one parent, the other parent will most likely still have the right to regular parenting time. If there are concerns about children’s safety or other reasons why a parent’s parenting time should be restricted, the court may put certain requirements in place, such as having supervision present when children are spending time with that parent.

Factors Considered When Determining Children's Best Interests

When making decisions about child custody, the court will always attempt to find solutions that will protect children’s best interests. Illinois law outlines several key factors that may be considered when making these determinations, including:

  • The wishes of the child: The court may consider the preferences of older children who can express their desires regarding custody or visitation arrangements. If necessary, a judge may speak to a child privately, asking questions about their relationship with each parent and any concerns they may have.

  • The wishes of the parents: Each parent may express their preferred outcome to child custody disputes, and a judge may look at areas of agreement and disagreement when determining what compromises between these two positions may be made.

  • The mental and physical health of all people involved: The court will assess each parent's ability to provide for their child's emotional and physical needs. Any history of domestic violence or substance abuse may also be taken into consideration. Any special needs of children may be considered to ensure that parents will be prepared to address these issues. The health of other family members who will be providing care for children may also be assessed, and anyone else who lives in each parent’s household may also need to be considered.

  • The relationship between each parent and the child: A judge will evaluate how well each parent has bonded with their child. They will also consider the role each parent has played in the past when making important decisions and providing day-to-day care for children. Ultimately, a judge will be looking to find solutions that will preserve parent/child relationships and ensure that both parents will be able to play an active role in raising their children.

  • The parents’ willingness to cooperate: Courts typically favor parents who demonstrate a willingness to work together for their children's benefit. Cooperation may include being flexible with visitation schedules and actively participating in co-parenting activities. A judge may look at how willing each parent is to put their children’s needs ahead of their own desires.

  • The child's adjustment to their current living situation: Stability and consistency is important for children, and courts will usually seek to disrupt their lives as little as possible. Because of this, they may favor custody arrangements that will allow children to continue living in the same home or community and attending the same schools. Based on how parents’ living situations may change during a divorce or separation, parenting time schedules may be put in place that will help children avoid major disruptions whenever possible.

It is important to note that these factors are not exhaustive, and judges have discretion to consider any other relevant factors that may affect children’s best interests on a case-by-case basis. The ultimate goal is always to ensure that the child's physical, emotional, and developmental needs will be met going forward.

The Role of Mediation in Resolving Child Custody Disputes

Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in which a neutral third party facilitates communication and negotiation between the parties involved. The mediator does not make decisions but helps guide the conversation toward finding common ground and resolving conflicts.

When addressing issues related to child custody and working to reach agreements on how to share parental responsibilities and parenting time, mediation can often be beneficial for parents. It provides them with the opportunity to address their concerns, express their preferences, clarify misunderstandings, and work together towards creating a parenting plan that serves the best interests of their children.

The Benefits of Mediation

Mediation offers several advantages over traditional litigation or courtroom battles, including:

  • Promoting cooperation: Unlike adversarial court proceedings, which can lead to increased conflict, mediation encourages parents to cooperate with each other by fostering open dialogue and giving both parties a say in the decisions that are made. By establishing positive, effective methods of communication and joint decision-making, mediation can lay the groundwork for continued cooperation in the years to come.

  • Maintaining control: With mediation, parents have greater control over the ultimate decisions about child custody rather than leaving crucial choices up to a judge who may not fully understand their family dynamics. By working collaboratively through mediation, they can craft unique solutions tailored to their specific needs.

  • Saving time and money: Resolving disputes through litigation can be time-consuming and expensive due to legal fees, court appearances, trial preparation, expert testimony requirements, and potential appeals. In contrast, mediation tends to be more efficient, allowing parents to resolve disputes much more quickly and cost-effectively.

  • Privacy: Mediation is always confidential, and parents will be able to discuss issues related to their children in private as they work together to resolve their differences. This will allow them to minimize conflict and avoid the embarrassment that may come with discussing the details of their lives during a public trial.

  • Promoting emotional well-being: Going through litigation can be emotionally draining for both parents and children. Parents may experience increased stress levels and other issues that may impact their mental health. This may in turn affect their children, especially if parents struggle to devote enough time and energy toward parental responsibilities while also handling legal issues. Mediation provides a less adversarial environment where parents can express their emotions openly and work together to find solutions. This can help minimize stress and allow parents to focus on meeting their children’s needs going forward.

The Process of Mediation

The exact procedures used during mediation may vary depending on the approach parents plan to take and the practices followed by the mediator they select. However, mediation will usually involve the following steps:

  1. Initial consultation: Each parent may meet individually with the mediator to discuss their concerns, goals, and expectations for the mediation process. They may identify specific areas of concern or disputes that they have struggled to resolve, and they may begin offering suggestions for how certain issues may be handled, including potential compromises that may be made.

  2. Joint sessions: Most of the time, parents will participate in joint sessions facilitated by the mediator. During these sessions, they will identify issues that need to be resolved, explore potential solutions, and engage in open discussions. The mediator will help facilitate dialogue and guide parents toward reaching agreements. They may offer suggestions and provide guidance regarding the applicable laws and the legal requirements that will need to be met. The goal of these sessions will be to create a parenting plan that fully details the decisions made about all issues related to child custody while meeting the requirements of Illinois law.

  3. Final hearing: After a final agreed parenting plan has been created, the parents will attend a court hearing where their agreement will be submitted to the court. The judge in their case will review the agreement to make sure it provides for the children’s best interests. Once the parenting plan is approved, it will become a legally binding court order.

In some cases involving high levels of conflict or other issues that may make it difficult for parents to negotiate directly with each other, mediation may consist of separate sessions instead of joint sessions. In these cases, the mediator may meet with each parent separately while working to reach agreements that will be satisfactory for both parties. If necessary, other professionals, such as child psychologists or child custody evaluators, may also be consulted to help determine the best solutions for child custody issues. 

Contact Our Elmhurst Child Custody Lawyers

When addressing family law matters involving children, it is crucial to have experienced legal guidance. At Weiss-Kunz & Oliver, LLC, our DuPage County child custody attorneys understand the complexities involved in these cases, and we are dedicated to helping parents find solutions that will protect the best interests of their children. To learn more about how we can help you resolve disputes and reach agreements that will allow you to provide for your children’s needs, contact us at 312-605-4041 and set up a consultation.

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