Indiana Divorce Law: Understanding the Concept of ‘Best Interests of the Child’

Anyone who has been through a divorce in Indiana has probably heard the phrase “best interests of the child” numerous times. But what does the concept of best interests of the child under Indiana divorce law actually mean? This blog discusses Indiana divorce law and the concept of best interests of the child. 

The statute governing custody orders (I.C. 31-17-2-8), which lists some of the factors that a court must consider when determining the best interests of the child in a custody dispute is the place to start to learn what exactly the “best interests of the child” means. These factors include “… (4) The interaction and interrelationship of the child with: (A) the child's parent or parents; (B) the child's sibling; and (C) any other person who may significantly affect the child's best interests. (5) The child's adjustment to the child's: (A) home; (B) school; and (C) community… (7) Evidence of a pattern of domestic or family violence by either parent…” These sections of the statute are fairly straight-forward, simply providing that it is in a child’s best interests to live with people with whom they feel comfortable and have a close relationship, in a home free of domestic violence, while attending a school in a community where they fit in and feel safe. Poor grades, behavioral issues, strained communication between a parent and the child, or a lack of family and friends may all be considered as evidence that this is not the case. 

Another statutory factor used to determine a child’s best interests is the age and sex of the child. The age of the child may come into play if the child is very young and one parent has provided most of his or her daily care, as it did in Putnick when the court found that the child’s best interests would be served in the physical custody of the parent who has been the primary care-giver (Putnick v. Putnick, Court of Appeals No. 18A-DC-2674 (Ind. App. May 22, 2020)). The child’s sex might be given more weight as the child gets older and his or her need for the parent of the same sex increases. 

The court must also consider the wishes of the parents and the child when making a decision regarding the child’s best interests. The wishes of the child can have some influence on custody, as the court noted in Blue, stating that the child’s wishes can better enable the court to ascertain the best interests of the child (Blue v. Brooks (1973), 261 Ind. 338, N.E.2d 269). However, the child’s wishes alone will not support a custody determination because Indiana law does not allow children to make life decisions nor dictate their own custody and care (West v. West, No. 22A01-1102-DR-45 (Ind. App. Sep. 20, 2011)). It should be noted here that the custody order statute specifically says more weight will be given to a child’s wishes if the child is at least 14 years old. In light of this language, some courts will give little to no weight to a younger child’s wishes, as the trial court did in Mink, finding that because the child was not at least fourteen she was too young “to strongly consider her wishes regarding custody or parenting time.” (Mink v. Kistner, 129 N.E.3rd 819, (Ind. App. 2019)). 

The custody order statute further provides that the physical and mental health of all parties involved shall be considered when determining a child’s best interests. For example, a decline in mother’s mental health in P.G. resulted in the court modifying custody to give father primary physical custody of the parties child (P.G. v. M. G., Court of Appeals No. 19A-DR-2177 (Ind. App. Apr. 14, 2020)). In other cases, a parent may not be physically capable of caring for a child full time, so the other parent is granted primary physical custody, or the child could have a physical or mental health condition that one parent is more adept than the other at tending to and therefore is granted primary physical custody. 

The statute governing joint legal custody also lists a few factors the court must consider when determining the best interests of the child as it pertains to his or her parents’ joint authority to make important decisions for the child, such as those concerning education, healthcare, and religious training. Matters considered in making an award of joint custody include (I.C. 31-17-2-15): the child’s relationship with each parent, the parents’ fitness and suitability to make decisions, whether the parties are willing and able to communicate and cooperate with one another in raising a child from different households, and how close the parents live to one another. 

Whether the issue is physical or legal custody, modification of a custody order, parenting time, or anything else arising during or after a divorce, if it affects the child, the court will make its decision based on the child’s best interests. This concept is not black and white and cannot be fully covered by any statute or article, as each family, child, and situation is different, and so too will be what is best for each child. 

This blog was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Associates, P.C. It is for general educational purposes. The blog is not intended to be relied upon for any legal matter or issue. The blog is not legal advice. This is an advertisement. 


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