Parental Fitness or Best Interests of the Child? Balancing the Interests of Parent and Child in Custody Disputes

How does a court determine who gets custody of a child?

“Parental fitness” and “the best interests of the child” are standards that are used together to make custody and guardianship decisions in Massachusetts. See Veronica Serrato, “Case Comment: Best interests of the child versus unfitness of the parent: Unraveling the intertwinement,” 94 Mass. L.R. 142 (2013).

In custody determinations, preference is given to biological and adoptive parents. Massachusetts appellate courts have required actual and specific findings of parental unfitness before custody could be awarded to a non-parent over a parent. See Guardianship of Estelle, 70 Mass. App. Ct. 575, 584 (2007).  Courts consider factors like the history of the parent/child relationship; the parent’s financial support of the child; the parent’s involvement in school, sports, and extracurricular activities; the parent’s involvement with other family members; and the special needs of the child. Trial courts are required to weigh and make specific factual findings on these factors.

In the 2012 case of C.P. v. R.S., however, the Appeals Court focused on the “best interests” of a child, and ended up giving custody of the child to a stepfather instead of the child’s biological father. 81 Mass. App. Ct. 223 (2012). The biological father’s unfitness was not based on abuse, neglect, or other common factors. Instead, the trial court found that “the effect on the child of a transfer of custody to the father would be sufficiently negative that the father would be unable to address the child’s special needs and must therefore be deemed unfit in the circumstances.” Id. at 226. If subsequent cases follow this theory, the rights of parents may be threatened by courts’ unwillingness to return children to them after a period of separation.

Custody and guardianship disputes are complex and highly individualized. Their outcomes drastically affect the lives of both parents and children. If you are concerned about custody or guardianship of a child, get help from the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C. today.

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