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How are child custody decisions made in Florida?

Child custody is one of the most important issues couples need to resolve during a divorce. When couples cannot come to an agreement on how to handle custody and parenting matters, a court has to step in and make a decision. One important point parents need to understand going into custody proceedings, though, is that the decision is not primarily about their own competing interests as it is in other aspects of divorce, such as property division.

Rather, child custody is primarily about what is best for the child, and family court judges are supposed to make the best interests of the child the primary basis for custody decisions. Florida's child custody statute specifies that judges are to evaluate all factors relevant to the best interests of the child and provides a non-exhaustive list of factors for consideration.

Some of the factors judges consider relate to the qualities and circumstances of the parents themselves, while other factors relate to the needs of the child. Others pertain to the relationship between the parents and the child, and still others invite examination of the relationship between the parents themselves, as well as other individuals who will have contact with the child through the parents. All of this is to say that judges are supposed to thoroughly examine the entirety of the circumstances and relationships involved in the case before making a decision.

It is important to note that, by law, Florida judges presume that joint legal custody-or shared parental responsibility-is in the best interests of the child, unless it can be shown that joint custody would be detrimental to the child. This means that parents will continue to share parental responsibility after divorce unless the court is convinced this would be harmful for the child. Parents do not need to share parental responsibility for all the same aspects of the child's life, though, as state law permits judges to divide specific responsibilities between the parents. With respect to parenting time, Florida courts do not impose any presumptions for or against the father or mother of a child, nor is there any presumption in favor of a specific type of parenting time arrangement.

Family court judges have significant discretion in making child custody and parenting time determinations, and it is important for parents to work with an experienced attorney to ensure the court has all the information it needs to make a fully informed decision, including the wishes of the parents with regard to custody and the proper perspective on the various factors under consideration. This is especially important in contentious cases where spouses are prone to painting each other in a bad light in order to make themselves look more favorable to the court.

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