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Understanding Best Interests in Child Custody Cases

photo of man holding a toddler from the Pro Legal Care LLC blog post about best interests in child custody cases

Interpreting child custody laws can seem like deciphering a riddle. But at the heart of each case, there’s a guiding light that illuminates the path to resolution—the concept of the child’s best interests. This pivotal principle acts as a compass, helping courts navigate the tumultuous seas of divorce and custody disputes to find a resolution that prioritizes the child’s well-being above all else.

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The Significance of Best Interests in Child Custody Cases

In child custody cases, the best interests determination is a practical concept that forms the foundation of custody decisions. Nearly every decision in custody cases requires the Court to consider the specific delineated factors of how the relief the parties are seeking may impact the child’s best interests. This principle shapes the child’s life after divorce as well, dictating their residence, their primary custodians or caregivers, and the nature of their interactions with both parents. The child’s best interests is a constant principle in custody proceedings and has the effect of steering decisions and impacting results.

The Court’s endeavor to ascertain the child’s best interests is not a cursory glance but a thorough examination of the child’s life. It encompasses various aspects, each of which the Custody judge applies in what’s known as a “balancing test.” The best interests of the child analysis that the Court is required to apply is described as a balancing test, because there is not a single factor that determines the child’s best interests. Rather, the best interests of the child are determined by applying the appropriate weight in balancing all of the factors that go into the Court’s analysis. The specific factors and reasons for the best interest of the child analysis are described and listed in greater detail below. Courts can appoint a Guardian ad Litem in order to help analyze the factors involved.

The Purpose of the Best Interest Standard

The purpose of the best interest standard is to require the Court to consider certain delineated factors, to keep and maintain a child centered approach, and to never lose sight of the most vulnerable and innocent people involved: the children. The best interests of the child standard acts as a guide, steering vital decisions for the child, and ensuring every important decision about the child made by the Court is a child centered decision. The premise of uniformity is a major tenant of the best interests of the child standard, because judges should have guidance in making such important decisions that affect children’s lives.

Illinois Courts are required to apply this standardized approach and take into account all relevant factors to make a decision in the child’s best interests. The standard can be considered to be holistic because the best interest of the child standard contemplates that the various factors required to be considered affect one another, attempts to address the root cause of problems relating to the child, and to also consider the child’s overall well-being. However, the best interests of the child standard often does not feel standardized in practice. The reason is that every case is unique, facts or incidents that are important to one judge may not be considered important to another judge, and every custody judge has wide discretion to decide what arrangements suit the best interests of the child.

Factors Affecting the Best Interests of the Child

When determining the child’s best interests, Illinois courts consider a number of factors to paint a picture of the child’s life and to make determinations regarding their needs. These factors include:

  1. the wishes of each parent seeking parenting time;
  2. the wishes of the child, taking into account the child’s maturity and ability to express reasoned and independent preferences as to parenting time;
  3. the amount of time each parent spent performing caretaking functions with respect to the child in the 24 months preceding the filing of any petition for allocation of parental responsibilities or, if the child is under 2 years of age, since the child’s birth;
  4. any prior agreement or course of conduct between the parents relating to caretaking functions with respect to the child;
  5. the interaction and interrelationship of the child with his or her parents and siblings and with any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interests;
  6. the child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community;
  7. the mental and physical health of all individuals involved;
  8. the child’s needs;
  9. the distance between the parents’ residences, the cost and difficulty of transporting the child, each parent’s and the child’s daily schedules, and the ability of the parents to cooperate in the arrangement;
  10. whether a restriction on parenting time is appropriate;
  11. the physical violence or threat of physical violence by the child’s parent directed against the child or other member of the child’s household;
  12. the willingness and ability of each parent to place the needs of the child ahead of his or her own needs;
  13. the willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the other parent and the child;
  14. the occurrence of abuse against the child or other member of the child’s household;
  15. whether one of the parents is a convicted sex offender or lives with a convicted sex offender and, if so, the exact nature of the offense and what if any treatment the offender has successfully participated in;
  16. the terms of a parent’s military family-care plan that a parent must complete before deployment if a parent is a member of the United States Armed Forces who is being deployed; and
  17. any other factor that the court expressly finds to be relevant.

The Court uses the above factors to depict and determine a comprehensive view of the child’s life. Each factual strand, whether it’s the child’s school needs, the child’s age, or the safety of the child’s environment, adds a different hue and a different perspective or component to the overall picture. Pursuant to Illinois law, the Court is required to specifically consider each and every applicable factor listed above. This extensive analysis enables the Court to make a decision that genuinely serves the child’s best interests, prioritizing their mental and physical health, with a strong emphasis on the wellbeing of the specific child or children.

The Child’s Age and Preferences

In child custody decisions, age isn’t merely a number, it is a factor that can considerably impact the Court’s rulings. As children age, their preferences gain more weight in custody decisions. This isn’t to say that a child can simply choose their custodial parent, because there is no age where the child’s wishes are the sole determining factor. However, as children get older, their voice can hold significant sway in the court’s determinations. Often, children have desires that they are unable to express clearly or articulate with support through logic and reasoning. Unfortunately, this can result in the child’s wishes not being considered as much as they should be considered due to the child’s inability to express themselves in the most persuasive manner. Thankfully, though, younger children that are unable to express themselves are given more consideration when there are circumstances of possible abuse.

The maturity of the child is a significant consideration when assessing the child’s wishes, in addition to the child’s age. Teenage children are often given a great deal of weight by the Court in deciding what is in the child’s best interest. The reasons for the child’s wishes can also be extremely important for the Court to consider whether the wishes of the child are necessarily in furtherance of the child’s best wishes. For example, a 13 year old that wishes to live with a particular parent because that parent does not require the child to do their homework or have a bed time would not be a persuasive factor. The wishes of a 17 year old child, for example, may cause a change in custody due to the judges growing exhausted over attempting to control a young adult who has their own autonomy. However, it is important to note that the child’s wishes is not the the sole deciding factor, even when well-reasoned. The court doesn’t use it as a definitive marker but as one of multiple considerations that help shape the final custody decision.

Safety and Stability in the Home and Environment

The safety and stability of the home environment are two important aspects of determining the child’s best interests. Both are taken into account by the judge in various different ways for the purpose ensuring that the child’s safety is prioritized and nurtured in a secure and stable environment. Stability of the parents can be considered and assessed by the Court in many different ways, including stability in employment, mental stability, and stability in the life of the parent in other ways. Perhaps most important is the stability of the residence or residences of each parent. In Illinois, safety and stability are addressed by the Court assessing the living arrangements of each parent. This can include the neighborhood, the lifestyle of the parent, they physical condition of the home, and how each of which can impact on the child’s safety. Factors such as home inspection reports, testimony from neighbors or professionals, and witness statements can all contribute to the Court’s assessment and to make sure the child’s safety and stability are not compromised. The court’s primary concern is to ascertain the best interests of the child and assess all relevant evidence that is admissible as provided by law, so there often is a wide breadth of evidence for the Court to review when considering the child’s best interests.

The complex nature of child custody cases accentuates the importance of legal assistance. Having a seasoned attorney by your side can provide invaluable guidance and support throughout the legal process and help ensure the best possible outcome for the child.

A qualified custody attorney can provide the following services:

From issues such as parenting time to the intricacies of custody laws, a well-versed attorney can be a beacon of light in the murky waters of child custody disputes.

Parental Cooperation and Communication

Parental cooperation and communication can form the foundation for successful custody arrangements, including the creation of a parenting plan. The court expects both parents to be actively involved in the child’s welfare, fostering an environment that prioritizes the child’s well-being, and encourages collaboration with the other parent whenever possible. Effective parental cooperation and communication can create a positive atmosphere, diminish conflict, and foster trust in the parent child relationship. It allows the child to maintain healthy relationships with both parents and provides emotional stability and consistency. Various methods to assess the level of parental cooperation and communication are also addressed by the Court when determining what arrangements would fit the child’s best interests. This is because the ability of the parties to communicate and cooperate, especially in the event of a disagreement or other challenges, is an important consideration in determining the best interests of the child. If the parties are not effective communicators and have trouble resolving their own conflicts, then the arrangement that suits the child’s best interests would be different than the arrangements for parents with a high level of cooperation.

The Role of Expert Witnesses

Expert witnesses, like mental health professionals, can play a significant role in child custody cases and help identify which arrangements are in the child’s best interests. Their expertise allows them to provide evidence-based assessments and recommendations that can significantly influence the court’s decisions. These professionals perform a range of assessments and evaluations, including custody evaluations and visitation assessments. They conduct interviews, perform testing and observations, and even review previous evaluations to identify strengths and weaknesses in the report. Their testimony can illuminate the judge’s understanding of the child’s situation and help aid the Court in determining what arrangement serves the child’s best interests, especially in complex cases.

Relocation and Modification of Custody Orders

Life is unpredictable and changes can profoundly impact child custody arrangements. In such cases, modifications to custody orders may become necessary. The same standard and the best interest of the child analysis applies in grandparent rights cases. Whether it’s due to a parent’s relocation, the child starting at a new school, or another significant change in the child’s life, custody orders can be modified to adapt to the child’s ever-changing needs and to ensure that the child’s best interests continue to be served. However, it’s important to note that these modifications are not made lightly. The Court scrutinizes each case thoroughly, ensuring that the proposed modifications align with the child overall well-being. For this reason, the best interest of the child standard is also applied by the Courts in relocation and other modification cases.

Grandparents’ Rights and Involvement

While parents are usually the caregivers addressed in child custody cases, grandparents can also play a substantial role. They can petition the court for visitation rights if they can prove that they experienced an unreasonable denial of visitation that is not in the child’s best interests, among other factors. In fact, in some cases, grandparents may even petition for custody of their grandchildren. However, these rights are by no means absolute and are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, always keeping the child’s best interests as the guiding principle. The court evaluates factors such as the relationship between the grandparent and the child when determining grandparents’ visitation rights, but grandparent visitation is not permitted without the Court performing the best interests of the child analysis first. No grandparent visitation will be ordered, unless doing so would be consistent with the best interest of the child or children involved.


Navigating the intricate realm of child custody cases can seem like a daunting task, but at the heart of each case lies a principle that guides the way: the child’s best interests. This pivotal concept illuminates the path to resolution for the judge, helping courts navigate the complex seas of divorce and custody disputes to find a solution that prioritizes the child’s well-being above all else. You should consider the best interests of the child analysis to be the judge’s lighthouse.

Nearly every facet of the child’s life is analyzed under this judicial analysis to make sure that decisions made about the child are consistent with the child’s needs and best interests. From the determination of the child’s residence, to decision-making authority, to custody, all major parental rights decisions take into account the best interests of the child. The best interest standard is applied across the spectrum of child custody cases, prioritizing the interests of the child while considering what is fair in terms of the parental rights of each party involved. It underscores the importance of parental cooperation, the role of expert witnesses, and the significance of finding the right attorney. While the journey through a child custody case may be challenging, always remember that the child’s best interests serve as the North Star, guiding every decision and every step along the way.

Consult with Family Law Attorney Zachary Townsend

Call or text today – (815) 200-8802

During your consultation, Attorney Townsend will go over the history of your legal matter, ascertain your goals, and help you develop a new path forward for you and your family.
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