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Preference for the "Primary Caretaker"

Mothers and fathers who are splitting up may both seek and be awarded physical custody of their child. In an ideal scenario, a mother and father would come to an agreement together, without battling the matter out in court. However, when a family court judge does have to step in and decide which parent to award primary physical custody to, preference is usually given to the one who is the child's "primary caretaker."

The "Primary Caretaker" Standard

In custody cases, most states' family courts allow a preference for the parent who can demonstrate that he or she was a child's primary caretaker during the course of marriage, or assumed that role in general if the parents are unmarried. The "primary caretaker" factor became important as psychologists began to stress the importance of the bond between a child and his or her primary caretaker. This emotional bond is said to be important to the child's successful passage through his or her developmental stages, and psychologists strongly encourage the continuation of the "primary caretaker"-child relationship, as being vital to the child's psychological stability.

How Is the "Primary Caretaker" Decision Made?

When determining which parent has been the primary caretaker of a child for purposes of a custody decision, family courts focus on how parents have divided the key responsibilities for taking care of their child, including such tasks as:

  • Bathing, grooming, and dressing;
  • Meal planning and preparation;
  • Purchasing clothes and laundry responsibilities;
  • Health care arrangements;
  • Fostering participation in extracurricular activities;
  • Teaching of reading, writing, and math skills; helping with homework;
  • Conferencing with teachers; attending open houses; and
  • Planning and participating with leisure activities with the child.

Depending on the state where the custody determination is being made, other factors may be considered as important when determining primary caretaker status. Even such things as exposure to second-hand smoke and volunteerism in the child's school have been considered in a primary caretaker analysis.

Making a Decision in the Best Interests of the Child

If the question "who is the primary caretaker" is not easily answered, as when both parents have equally shared parenting responsibilities, courts will generally look to the "child's best interest" standard used for determining custody. Some of the factors a court will consider when making a decision in the child's best interest are:

  • The child's wishes (if he or she is old enough);
  • The parents' physical and mental health;
  • The parents' and child's religious preference;
  • Need for continuation of stable home environment;
  • Support and opportunity for interaction with members of extended family of either parent;
  • Interaction and interrelationship with other members of household;
  • Adjustment to school and community;
  • Age and sex of child;
  • Parental use of excessive discipline or emotional abuse; and
  • Evidence of parental drug, alcohol, or sex abuse.

If you would like to know more about child custody issues, or if you would like help getting primary caretaker status in your own child custody case, there are many attorneys in your area with child custody experience who may be able to help.

Next Steps
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