Indiana’s Best Interest of the Child Checklist
Child custody battles are often very emotional and can become ugly legal fights between two parents or guardians. Additionally, Indiana child custody laws are complex and can confuse the parents or guardians seeking custody. As such, hiring an experienced Indiana child custody lawyer represents the best chance of winning custody of the child. Contrary to many parents’ beliefs, the standard for deciding child custody is not who will be the best parents, but instead what custody situation is in the best interest of the child. Understanding the items included in this best interest of the child checklist may help parents as they work through child custody issues in an Indiana separation or divorce.
The Child Custody Standard: A Best Interest of the Child Checklist
While contrary to popular belief, the standard for awarding child custody is not the best parent standard but the best interest of the child. The judge will view the best interest of the child checklist from the viewpoint of the child and not the parent. Summarizing the details included in Indiana child custody laws, a best interest of the child checklist includes evaluation of the following:
- Emotional connection between parent and child
- Ability of one parent to take care of the child
- Time spent by the child in one environment
- Moral fitness of the custodial parents
- Willingness of the parties to encourage the child’s relationship with the other parent
The best interest of the child and parental rights are determined by many relevant factors related to the wellbeing, health, and care of the child. The best interest of the child checklist requires the judge to consider the following:
- The child’s age and gender
- The parents’ wishes
- The child’s preferences, with children 14 years and older receiving more consideration
- The relationship and dynamics between the child and the parents, any siblings, and anyone else with an impact on the child’s best interest
- The adjustment of the child to home, community, and school
- The physical and mental health of all parties
- Any evidence of domestic violence by either parent
- Any evidence of care having been provided by another party
Divorcing parents often agree to custody and support obligations before the court issues the official divorce decree. As such, the court will utilize the agreement as guidelines for deciding on support and custody. The agreement between the parents must be in the best interest of the child to be enforced and upheld by the court.
The Best Interest of the Child Checklist and Joint Custody
There are two types of custody an Indiana court can award to the child’s guardians. A parent can be awarded legal custody and physical custody. It is important to understand that when one parent wins one type of custody, they are not guaranteed to win the other.
While custody battles are often due to both parents wanting more time and control over the child, the court has the option to award joint custody. In addition to considering the best interest of the child checklist, the courts also heavily weigh whether the parents agree to a joint legal custody arrangement. Additional factors the court considers when awarding joint custody include:
- Each parent’s capacity and ability to parent
- Each parent’s willingness and ability to communicate and cooperate to achieve the goal of an arrangement that best suits the child’s welfare
- The child’s wishes, with children age 14 and older having more say in the matter
- The child’s relationship with each parent or other individual requesting custody
- The proximity of the parents’ homes to one another and their intentions to stay in those locations or relocate
- The emotional and physical environments of the homes in consideration
When parents have joint legal custody, both parents have the right to decide important aspects of the child’s life. However, the parents don’t have to agree and may make decisions alone. To avoid the need to appear back in court, the parents should communicate and do their best to make decisions together when possible.
Joint physical custody does not mean the child spends an equal amount of time per week with each parent. For example, this may mean the child spends only one or two nights a week with one parent and the rest of the week with the other parent. The parent that the child spends most of their time with is often called the “primary custodial parent.”
Courts prefer when parents work together to develop a joint custody agreement on their own. An experienced Indianapolis child custody attorney can help you work with the other parent to agree on joint custody while still protecting your interests, as well as those of your child.
What to Expect During the Child Custody Hearing
Child custody hearings take place in an intimate setting and are generally short. The judge will act as a referee and mediator, so each parent directs their arguments to the judge. This removes some adversarial aspects of the hearing, and the parents will not argue with each other directly.
The parties present for the hearing are typically the parents, their attorneys, and the judge, mediator, or court adjudicator overseeing the hearing. While the hearing takes place in a courtroom, it is not usually a typical courtroom, but a small courtroom that meets the needs of a more intimate hearing.
While the parents may present their case, having an attorney provides a better chance of success. An experienced Indianapolis child custody attorney will know which documents, evidence, and witnesses to bring. Once all arguments are heard, the judge proceeds to decide on the best interest of the child and parental rights.
Evidence to Satisfy the Best Interest of the Child Checklist
To prepare for your hearing, it is important to know what to expect so you can prepare accordingly. The most important aspect of your argument is the evidence and witness testimony to be presented at the hearing. An Indiana child custody lawyer can help you create and present the best argument regarding the best interest of the child and parental rights.
First, it is important to understand which arguments you will make. To help shape your argument, think about what questions the judge may ask. These questions will focus on your lifestyle, financial stability, ability to communicate with the other parent, and your personal life, including living arrangements and significant others.
The witnesses you should bring are people who have interactions with both you, your child, and with both of you together. These people can include your child’s babysitters, teachers, family friends, or coaches. The judge may rely on testimony from your witness, the other parent, a child psychologist, or a representative from Child Protective Services.
Finally, make sure you have all the necessary forms and documentation. You risk having your case thrown out for procedural violations without the proper documents. To avoid this, contact an Indiana child custody lawyer for help with your case.
The Role of the Child in a Custody Hearing
Indiana takes steps to limit the exposure a child has to the custody hearings as they can be emotionally traumatic experiences. There is no specific age at which the child may testify, and the court evaluates the child’s maturity, discretion, and ability to understand the difference between the truth and a lie. As such, judges have discretion as to how much weight to give to a child’s testimony, and the Indiana best interest of the child checklist gives more weight to those over 14 years old.
Courts have several options for how a child can testify. First, the child may answer questions from both parties while on a witness stand. This places the child in the line of fire and exposes them to the litigation aspect of the custody battle. As such, there is also an option for the judge to interview the child in the judge’s chambers.
Interviewing the child in chambers may make the child feel more comfortable and open up the dialogue between the judge and the child. The judge may decide whether to permit counsel to be present at the interview. The conversation may be recorded and made part of the official hearing record if the attorneys are present at the interview.
Additionally, the judge can appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the child’s best interest and eliminate the need for the child to testify in court or the judge’s chambers. Guardians assess the family’s situation and provide a recommendation that serves the child’s best interest. The guardian typically reaches their recommendation after meeting with the child and possibly the parents to get a feel for the family’s dynamic.
Get Help from an Indiana Child Custody Lawyer
Child custody disputes are often very emotional. You’re fighting to protect your children and preserve your parental rights. The way forward starts with reviewing the best interest of the child checklist and working with an Indianapolis child custody attorney at Keffer Hirschauer LLP. Our experience and thorough understanding of Indiana child custody laws can help protect your family. Whether you’re dealing with child custody issues in a divorce or navigating other matters related to Indiana divorce or legal separation, we can help. Contact us for a free consultation by calling (317) 857-0160 or complete our online contact form.