Preference for the "Primary Caregiver"

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 caregiver."

But what exactly does that mean? The following information provides an overview of how courts define "primary caregiver" and how that impacts child custody cases.

The "Primary Caregiver" Standard

In custody cases, most states' family courts allow a preference for the parent who can demonstrate that they were a child's primary caregiver during the course of the marriage, or assumed that role in general if the parents are unmarried. This factor became important as psychologists began to stress the importance of the bond between a child and the parent or guardian most responsible for their day-to-day care.

This emotional bond is said to be important to the child's successful passage through their developmental stages, and psychologists strongly encourage the continuation of this relationship as being vital to the child's psychological stability.

How the "Primary Caregiver" Decision is Made

When determining which parent has taken care of a child the most 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 just as important when determining primary caregiver status. Even such things as exposure to second-hand smoke and volunteerism in the child's school have been considered.

Making a Decision in the Best Interests of the Child

If the question "who is the primary caregiver" 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 include the following:

  • 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.

Are You the Primary Caregiver? Protect Your Child's Interests With an Attorney's Help

Even in an agreeable separation, one area where there is often a dispute is physical custody. As you can see, where courts are needed to resolve these disputes, they will look to many factors to determine how to best establish custody for the child. An experienced family law attorney understands these factors and the preference for the primary caregiver and can help you make the strongest case possible for custody of your children.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified child custody attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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