When parents are engaged in a child custody dispute, they are likely to hear the phrase "best interests of the child" in court. People with child custody cases may not understand what the phrase means in a legal sense. In Florida, the best interests of the child refers to the idea that courts make custody decisions designed to ensure the child's best outcomes in terms of their health, welfare and safety.
Judges make child custody decisions by weighing a number of relevant factors. Although the parents' individual wishes are considered, the child's interests are preeminent. Courts are not to give preference to one party over the other simply due to their respective genders. Instead, the factors considered by the courts are aimed at informing their best interests determinations.
There are multiple relevant factors, including the child's own wishes if the child is old enough to express them. How well the child is adjusted to their current home, school and community is important. The ability of each parent to encourage the child's relationship with the other parent is important as well. If there has been a history of domestic abuse or drug and alcohol issues by either parent, that can be determinative as well. Attempts at parental alienation by one parent are looked upon unfavorably. The quality of the child's relationship with each parent is considered as well.
A parent who is going through a child custody dispute should always remember that the most important goal is ensuring the child's best interests. Courts believe that making the child's interests their predominant concern can help children to become better adjusted and happier adults. Even if parents have a lot of conflict with one another, when they are able to come to an agreement regarding child custody it can be to their benefit as well as their child's.
Source: Child Welfare Information Gateway, "Determining the Best Interests of the Child", December 10, 2014