In making a determination about parental responsibility and time-sharing (custody), Florida courts consider a laundry list of “best interests of the child” factors set forth in Florida Statutes Section 61.13(3). Of the twenty factors listed, the shortest one, and probably the most hotly contested, is “the moral fitness of the parents.”
It’s easy to see why a divorcing parent might be quick to identify and point out perceived moral failings in the other parent. He or she may be feeling hurt or angry about the other parent’s actions that contributed to the divorce, worried about the well-being of the children afterward. The temptation to point fingers is strong, especially if moral issues like adultery were a factor in the marriage ending.
Let’s take a look at exactly what courts look at and think about when they consider the moral fitness of the parents, and how moral fitness (or lack of it) is established in court.
What is “Moral Fitness?”
It is not necessary to be a saint to have custody of your children. That said, courts do take into account behaviors that have an impact on the children.
For instance, many marriages end due to one partner’s infidelity. There is no doubt that adultery is not considered evidence of good moral fitness. The parent who was betrayed may point to the other parent’s infidelity as conclusive proof that they are not a fit parent, at least in terms of their morals.
However, a court might decline to take the parent’s alleged infidelity into account when evaluating moral fitness, so long as that behavior did not have an impact on the child’s welfare. If the child was unaware of the affair, and the cheating parent did not neglect the child in order to spend time with the affair partner, it simply might not weigh very heavily (if at all) in a custody determination.
On the other hand, if a parent were engaged in an affair and left the child unattended at night to go out to meet the affair partner, or plopped the child in front of the TV for hours so the parent could spend time with the affair partner in the home, the court might take notice. The issue is not simply whether a parent’s behavior is moral or immoral, but how that morality or immorality has an impact on their parenting and on the child’s needs.
Other situations which might weigh against a parent in terms of moral fitness might include a gambling habit which resulted in the waste of funds that should have been used for the children’s needs; a parent engaging in criminal behavior and needing to change the family’s residence frequently to avoid detection. That would contribute to a lack of stability for the children. Dealing drugs out of the family home could expose the children to dangerous people or to drugs. A court may also consider a parent’s dating or cohabitation, to the extent that those habits expose the children to instability or people of questionable character.
Proving Moral Fitness (or Lack of Moral Fitness)
It is one thing for a parent to engage in behavior that shows a lack of moral fitness. It is another thing to prove moral fitness, or a lack of moral fitness, to the court. It is relatively uncommon to have video or other “smoking gun” documentary evidence regarding a parent’s moral fitness.
Moral fitness is often shown through testimony. Parents may enlist people who know them and their children to testify regarding their own honesty, ethics, and moral behavior, and the values they model for their children. They may also ask people they know to testify as to the other parent’s demonstrated lack of moral fitness.
This is one area in which parents can get into the weeds, so to speak, because it is so easy to get emotional about this issue. An experienced Florida family law attorney can provide some much-needed objectivity while still respecting your feelings and your experience of your spouse’s character. A seasoned attorney will know what information is most likely to make the needed impact on the judge, and the most effective way to present it. Your attorney will make sure that testimony regarding moral fitness is focused where it needs to be: on your child’s well-being. Effective testimony on moral fitness not only highlights flaws in your spouse’s character, but the strength of your own character. If you have concerns about the impact of the issue of moral fitness on your Florida custody matter, please contact Miami family lawyer Antonio Jimenez to schedule a consultation.