Florida Best Interests Factors: Developmental Needs of the Child

For the last few months, this blog has taken an in-depth look at each of the factors listed in Florida Statutes section 61.13(3), which courts examine when considering what is in the “best interests” of a child in a custody matter. This blog post brings us to the last defined factor: the developmental needs of the child.

The “best interests” statute says that a court must consider “the developmental stages and needs of the child and the demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to meet the child’s developmental needs.”

What exactly is meant by developmental needs? If you have spent much time with children, you know that even among children of the same age, their abilities and needs vary a lot. So this factor highlights the importance of taking into account the unique needs of each child when determining time-sharing and parental responsibility.

How Parents Meet Children’s Developmental Needs

Of course, developmental needs, by definition, change as the child grows. A common example is a baby who is exclusively breastfed. It makes logical sense for an infant who gets all her nutrition from nursing to be in the mother’s primary physical custody. As the child grows, the need for her to develop a strong bond with her father will become increasingly important, the need to nurse will diminish and eventually disappear, and the time-sharing arrangement will change.

This doesn’t mean that custody issues are revisited every time a child develops a new need or skill; the need for a child to be with a parent who can best meet residential needs must be balanced with the need for stability and predictability in the child’s life.

It is not always obvious which parent will be able to best meet a child’s developmental needs in the future. That is why courts seriously consider the family’s history: the demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to meet those needs. Has one parent been there consistently, interacting with the child and helping her develop? If the child has medical issues or other special needs, has one parent administered care and therapy at home and taken the child to appointments? When considering the time that each parent has spent with the child, was it based on the child’s needs, or the parent’s convenience?

Evidence of a parent’s demonstrated capacity to meet the child’s developmental needs can be provided by witness testimony, including teachers, therapists, and doctors, and by medical records.

One More Thing About Florida Custody

In addition to the laundry list of factors we’ve discussed at length in this blog, Florida courts may consider “any other factor that is relevant to the determination of a specific parenting plan, including the time-sharing schedule.” It may seem that the list of Florida “best interests” factors is exhaustive. Even so, courts have the discretion to consider information that doesn’t quite fall within the scope of one factor or another, but still seems relevant to the child’s well-being.

For instance, let’s say a child’s father has remarried, and the child’s stepmother has children with whom the child has a strong relationship. Time-sharing might be arranged to allow the child’s time with her father to coincide with the stepsiblings’ presence in that home, and foster those relationships and the strength of that family unit.

This factor is a catch-all designed to ensure that judges have the discretion to consider the full picture of a child’s life, including unique circumstances that could not have been contemplated by the legislature when it drew up the custody statute.

Judges in family law cases have a great deal of power over the lives of those who appear before them. It is easy to forget that they are people, too, with their own priorities and biases. Judges generally do their best to remain impartial and to interpret the law without imposing those biases. Even so, it can be very helpful to have the guidance of a Florida family law attorney who practices regularly in the local courts where your case is being heard. The knowledge your attorney has of your judge, and his or her inclinations, can guide the evidence presented in your case. Your attorney may choose to emphasize information he knows will be especially meaningful to the judge hearing it.

If you have questions about Florida parental responsibility or time sharing, or concerns about the “best interests” factors in your case, please contact Miami child custody attorney Antonio Jimenez.