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How Does The Judge Decide Who Gets The Kids In MN Custody Cases?

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Deciding The Best Interest Of Kids In Custody Cases

As a divorce lawyer, I’m constantly surprised by how infrequently clients ask about this fundamental question: how does a judge decide custody in Minnesota?

Perhaps it’s the whirlwind of emotions and logistics during a divorce that leaves basic questions unasked. Or, maybe, it’s a uniquely American faith in the justice system – a belief that fairness will prevail, even if the exact process remains a mystery.

While our justice system is commendable, it doesn’t rely on magic formulas, especially when it comes to child custody. In Minnesota, judges meticulously evaluate each case based on a set of thirteen factors outlined in Minnesota Statute 518.17.

It’s important to understand that these factors hold equal weight, and the judge doesn’t assign points like a football game (no “wife 8 vs. husband 5” scenarios here!). Instead, they carefully consider each factor before reaching a final decision.

Or, and I think this is much more likely, that as Americans we believe that the justice system will, well, be just!  We have an inherent belief that justice will prevail, were not sure how, but it will prevail and will be perfect.

Our justice system is good, possibly the best in the world but the Judge does not just  use a magic formula to determine custody in Minnesota. The way custody is determined is not done by some magic formula but instead 13 factors.  In Minnesota the Judge will use the law (Minn. Stat 518.17) and will look at 12 (sometimes 4 sub) factors. 

What’s interesting is that the factors are all equal and the Judge’s don’t really score them like a football game (there’s no wife 8 vs husband 5, winner wife!) instead the Judge looks at each factor and then issues the ruling.  The factors are:

  1. The wishes of the child’s parent or parents as to custody;
  2. The reasonable preference of the child as to custody, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient age to express preference;
  3. The child’s primary caretaker;
  4. The intimacy of the relationship between each parent and the child;
  5. The interaction and interrelationship of the child with a parent or parents, siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interests;
  6. The child’s adjustment to home, school, and community;
  7. The length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity;
  8. The permanence, as a family unit, of the existing or proposed custodial home;
  9. The mental and physical health of all individuals involved; except that a disability of a proposed custodian or the child shall not be determinative of the custody of the child, unless the proposed custody arrangement is not in the best interest of the child;
  10. The capacity and disposition of the parties to give the child love, affection, and guidance, and to continue educating and raising the child in the child’s culture and religion or creed, if any;
  11. The child’s cultural background;
  12. The effect on the child of the actions of an abuser, if related to domestic abuse that has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual, whether or not the individual alleged to have committed domestic abuse is or ever was a family or household member of the parent; and
  13. The disposition of each parent to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact by the other parent with the child.

A common myth circulating among parents embarking on the journey of a custody trial is the belief in a magical age—a specific point in a child’s life when their voice suddenly becomes the deciding factor in court. This misconception paints a simplified picture of a process that, in reality, is anything but simple. The truth is, there’s no such magic age. The idea that once a child hits a certain milestone, a judge will automatically take their preference as the final word, is a misunderstanding of how the legal system operates in these delicate matters.

In Minnesota, as in many states, the court’s approach to involving a child in custody decisions is nuanced and considers a multitude of factors beyond just age. While it’s true that the opinions of bright, articulate children, particularly those over the age of 12, might be given consideration, it’s essential to understand that this is entirely at the judge’s discretion. The court’s primary concern is the child’s best interest, which encompasses a wide range of considerations, from emotional and physical well-being to stability and the capacity of each parent to nurture the child’s development.

Judges are trained to weigh these factors carefully, understanding that a child’s preference, while important, is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. They consider the child’s maturity level, the reasons behind their preference, and how it aligns with their overall welfare. It’s a process that requires sensitivity and discernment, as the impact of these decisions will resonate through the child’s life for years to come.

This meticulous approach highlights the complexity of custody trials. It’s not a straightforward calculation or a simple matter of listening to a child’s stated preference. The legal system’s goal is to ensure a decision that serves the best interest of the child, recognizing that this involves a careful balancing of many different elements.

For parents, understanding this aspect of child custody trials can be eye-opening. It underscores the importance of preparing for a trial that considers the full scope of the child’s life and needs. It’s a reminder that success in these cases requires more than just presenting a child’s preference to the court. It requires a comprehensive strategy that addresses all the factors the court deems relevant to the child’s well-being.

This complexity also serves as a call to action for parents to engage deeply with the legal process, seeking to understand not just the letter of the law but its spirit. Engaging with experienced legal counsel, who can navigate the nuances of family law and advocate effectively for the child’s and parent’s interests, becomes paramount.

In closing, dispelling the myth of the “magic age” in custody trials is crucial for parents facing this challenging journey. It opens the door to a deeper understanding of the legal system’s goals and the multifaceted nature of these decisions. It prepares parents to approach their case with a more informed perspective, focusing on what truly matters—their child’s long-term happiness and well-being.

If you are in a Minnesota custody dispute be sure to look at the factors, see where your strengths in the case lie and be prepared to help your lawyer prove the 13 factors.  Good luck!

Information obtained in mankatofamilylaw.com may contain knowledgable content about Minnesota Family Law that may be considered beneficial to some; however, in no way should this website or its contents be considered legal advice. Mr. Kohlmeyer is a Minnesota licensed Attorney and cannot provide legal services or guidance to those outside of Minnesota. If you wish to retain Mr. Kohlmeyer as your Attorney in your Family Law matter, contact 507-205-9736.

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