In child custody and guardianship cases, the best interests of the child are determined by examining a number of factors and seeing who is most likely to meet the physical and emotional needs of the child. Courts often have a checklist to work through, ensuring coverage of specific topics of concern, and the evaluation can involve input from people like the parents and child, as well as social workers, teachers, and other people with an interest in the case. The goal is to place the child in the best position possible for future happiness and success.
Usually, the child's own expressed wishes and concerns are taken into account, especially in the case of older children with the emotional capacity to understand the repercussions of their decisions. While they are not considered legally capable of making choices for themselves, they can still have a voice. A child who expresses a strong wish to stay with a particular parent or to remain in a given school district will be considered. Parent and guardian input is also considered when thinking about the best interests of the child. One parent may argue that keeping the child with the other parent could be better, for instance, given concerns about school and other matters.
The child's needs are another important factor. The court may think about the potential for after school activities and other events, and how housing might have an impact on pursuing social and extracurricular activities. A child forced to switch school districts might experience emotional distress, and a child might also have other needs like regular medical appointments, tutoring, and so forth that could be more easily met by one person than another.
Capability to provide care is another issue, sometimes a contentious one. Courts may feel more comfortable placing a child with a parent or guardian who has a stable job and home life and the ability to interact with the child regularly. Parents with disabilities may find it difficult to argue that they have the capacity to provide care if a nondisabled parent or guardian is available as an alternative. Likewise, students, people with odd working hours, and people who need to travel can be at a disadvantage when decisions about the best interests of the child are being made.
Harm is another factor evaluated when thinking about the best interests of the child. If a child has a history of being abused or there are concerns about potential for abuse, this is an important consideration. Children who express fear or worry about being placed with someone will be evaluated to see if a different placement would be in the best interests of the child. The court does not want to place a child in an unstable, abusive, or potentially dangerous situation.