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What Does the Term “Best Interests of the Child” Mean?


Question: What Does the Term “Best Interests of the Child” Mean?

We have heard the term numerous times, especially in custody cases that have taken the media by storm. For example, any child that Madonna has tried to adopt. But, what does the term "best interests of the child" really mean and who determines what a child's best interest is?


The term, “best interests of the child” is meant to describe the set of principles or factors that guide a court’s deliberation when assessing what decisions would keep a child safe and how best to meet a child’s needs, including custody. This term is used differently in each state and each state usually has its own criteria or set of principles or factors that guide a court’s deliberating process.

Examples of principles and factors used in different court systems may include:

  • importance of birth family bonds and attachments, including siblings

  • importance of bonds with other care givers in a child’s life

  • health and safety of a child

  • the special needs of a child

  • the mental and emotional health of the birth parents or others seeking custody

  • the length of time the child has spent waiting for permanency

  • what the child wants, usually with an age or level of maturity attached to the suitability of listening to the child’s wishes

Some states require that the courts consider all of the factors, while others are asked to consider all important factors and not just the ones listed in the state’s statute. Other states give the courts more discretion to make a determination as to the best interests of a child.

Still other states list out a few things that can not be considered, such as:

  • the socioeconomic status of interested parties
  • the gender of those seeking custody
  • a parent’s disability

Bottom line, the “best interests of a child” is very subjective. Thus, difficult to define and often very frustrating for those who care for a child and have a different point of view as to what would be in a child’s best interest.

SOURCE: Child Welfare Information Gateway

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