How Custody Decisions Are Made

Posted on Jul 24, 2015 by Katie Carter

In most states, custody decisions are made in court based on the “best interests of the child.”  It’s a pretty general phrase that can mean all sorts of things.  In fact, most courts have a different definition of what, exactly, qualifies as being in the best interests of a child.
If you’re facing a custody case in Virginia, you should know the ten factors that the courts use to determine what is in the best interests of a child.  Custody cases are tricky, but it can help a lot if you understand what information the court is looking for, and how it will begin to form it’s decision.

What are the ten factors in Virginia that affect custody decisions?

1. The age and physical and mental condition of the child, giving due consideration to the child’s changing developmental needs;
2. The age and physical and mental condition of each parent;
3. The relationship existing between each parent and each child, giving due consideration to the positive involvement with the child’s life, the ability to accurately assess and meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of the child;
4. The needs of the child, giving due consideration to other important relationships of the child, including but not limited to siblings, peers and extended family members;
5. The role that each parent has played and will play in the future, in the upbringing and care of the child;
6. The propensity of each parent to actively support the child’s contact and relationship with the other parent, including whether a parent has unreasonably denied the other parent access to or visitation with the child;
7. The relative willingness and demonstrated ability of each parent to maintain a close and continuing relationship with the child, and the ability of each parent to cooperate in and resolve disputes regarding matters affecting the child;
8. The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of reasonable intelligence, understanding, age and experience to express such a preference;
9. Any history of family abuse as that term is defined in § 16.1-228 or sexual abuse. If the court finds such a history, the court may disregard the factors in subdivision 6; and
10. Such other factors as the court deems necessary and proper to the determination.

How does the court use these factors when it is making its decisions about custody and visitation?

A (good) custody case is entirely based around these factors.  Judges want to hear specific evidence about each of these factors, and what the parent is doing to help support the child relative to each of the factors.  The judge wants to hear, for example, that mom supports the child’s relationship with dad, fosters the child’s love of science by helping him conduct age-appropriate experiments at home, and encourages him to participate in team sports with neighborhood friends his age.  In short, the judge wants to hear specific examples of the types of parenting decisions that each parent is making on behalf of the child.  The judge wants to hear that the parents are using their best judgment, listening to the child where appropriate, and fostering the types of relationships (parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends) that will allow the child to grow into a well-adjusted, productive, happy, contributing member of society.
There’s no blueprint or scorecard; what happens in each family does (and should) vary from one family to the next.  It doesn’t matter so much what you say, it just matters that you’re doing the best you can to do what it takes to give your child the things he needs to grow and develop.
Your case, whether it’s crafted by you or your attorney, should focus on each of these factors, and how your parenting style reinforces the goals of each factor.  Though parents typically don’t think of each of their decisions in light of the factors, I think you’ll probably be surprised to see how, when you actually sit down to review the factors, your parenting really already aligns with the factors.  Even though it may not have been something you’ve specifically thought about, you do most of it because, let’s face it, those factors do come pretty close to encapsulating what good parenting is really all about.

Do I need an attorney?  It sounds hard to make a comprehensive argument for custody based on so many different factors!

I wish I could tell you it was easy, but the truth is that custody cases are difficult.  (Not to mention incredibly emotional, stressful, and unpredictable in nature.)  You may be too close to the situation to do it justice anyway.
Remember that judges hate emotion in the courtroom.  They don’t understand it, and it makes them uncomfortable.  If you come in crying, yelling, berating the other side, rolling your eyes, sucking your teeth, or scribbling furiously on your notepad, you’re going to look a little off balance.  I know; it’s understandable, because your kids are at stake here.  Still, I’m telling you now, the judge will not understand, and your behavior will not reflect favorably on you.
If you want to handle your custody case on your own (or, on the other hand, if it’s really your only option because you can’t afford to hire an attorney regardless of whether you’d wish to), you’ll need to make sure that you can stay calm, cool, and collected under pressure.  You’ll also want to do everything you can to prepare ahead of time.  Since probably don’t have time (or money) to go to law school before your hearing, consider Custody Bootcamp for Moms.
Custody Bootcamp for Moms is an intense, all-day seminar, designed to help teach moms what they need to know to represent themselves in their custody, support, and visitation proceedings at the juvenile court level.  It teaches all sorts of important skills, including how to build your case around those ten critical best interests of the child factors, prepare a trial notebook, question and cross examine witnesses, make killer opening and closing arguments, get your evidence in (and keep his out), and how to work with guardian ad litems and custody evaluators.  It’s truly comprehensive, and designed to help make sure you know what you’re doing when you walk into the courtroom.
The cost to attend is $197, which is less than the cost of a one hour consultation with a moderately priced attorney—and you get six (or more) hours of time with the attorney!  Since our attorney is willing to stay until the last woman’s last question is answered, there’s really no telling exactly how long the seminar will run!  We offer the seminar quarterly, usually on the fourth Saturday of the month (though sometimes our schedules prevent this; check online by clicking here for an up to date schedule with our next event date posted).  There’s no other seminar like it, and certainly nothing similar for men.
If you’re not planning on attending Custody Bootcamp for Moms, it may be possible to represent yourself anyway, especially at the juvenile court level.  Keep in mind that anything that happens at the juvenile court level is automatically appealable to the circuit court, so, if you don’t like the verdict you get initially, you can always retain an attorney later to help you.  Still, you should take it very seriously.  It’s not easy, and your children’s welfare is at stake.  If I could make a recommendation to you, I would certainly recommend that you attend Custody Bootcamp if at all possible.
Good luck!  If you have additional questions or would like to schedule a consultation with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia custody attorneys, give our office a call today at (757) 425-5200.