Changes to the best-interest factors in Minnesota child custody law

A new Minnesota law modifies the list of factors to be considered by judges in custody cases.

Every state enshrines in law that child custody decisions must be made in children's best interests. On August 1, 2015, a new law took effect in Minnesota that updates how a child's best interests are determined.

To back up, many divorcing parents are able to negotiate an agreement that controls how legal and physical custody as well as visitation, also called parenting time, will look. In Minnesota, this agreement is incorporated into the final divorce decree.

But when a judge must make a child custody decision, each state has its own take on what the judge should and can consider. The breadth of judicial discretion and how much he or she must document the reasons for the decision also vary.

In most states, the custody statute directs the judge to consider "all relevant factors" in determining a child's best interests, usually followed by a list of important factors for either optional or mandatory consideration. Minnesota's law says that the judge should consider all relevant factors, with specific consideration of a list of mandatory factors.

The new Minnesota law changed the old list of factors the judge must consider to a list of 12 new ones. Some of them are similar to previous factors, but are more detailed in description.

In addition, the new law added several overarching principals that the court must keep in mind during the best-interests analysis, including a requirement that the judge detail in writing his or her findings about each factor after considering the relevant evidence and how it contributed to the custody decision.

The new list places heavy emphasis on the child's needs, as opposed to the parents' wishes, which were removed as a mandatory factor.

The first new factor is a child's "physical, emotional, cultural, spiritual, and other needs ..." While this seems obvious, the types of needs were not spelled out before. Similarly, the new second factor says the judge must weigh any "special medical, mental health, or educational needs ..."

Previously, the court was to consider the "reasonable preference" of the child if he or she was of "sufficient age to express preference." This factor has now expanded to require the judge consider not only age but also ability and maturity to "express an independent, reliable preference."

Clarification has also been made to the factor of health. The old factor said to consider the mental and physical health of everyone involved. The new language directs consideration of parental "physical, mental, or chemical health" that impacts the child's "safety or developmental needs."

Before the law change, the court was to consider who the child's primary caretaker was. The new language changes this to an analysis of each parents' care-giving "history and nature."

A significant new factor is the benefit of "maximizing parenting time" with both parents and the detriment of limiting time with either. This seems to follow similar laws in other states that emphasize the value in most cases of meaningful time with both parents. Legislative embrace of the value of both parents involvement continues into the new guiding principles as well.

The last new factor, again in the spirit of continued involvement of both parents, is their ability to cooperate in raising the child, including sharing information and minimizing conflict.

Anyone in Minnesota facing a child custody determination in a divorce or child custody case should speak with an attorney who is well versed in the new law and monitoring carefully how it will be interpreted by Minnesota courts.

From offices in Lake Elmo and Lake Elmo, lawyers at Coodin & Overson, PLLP, represent family law clients throughout the Twin Cities and statewide.