Are you a parent of a minor child going through a divorce or a paternity action? If so, and your goal is to spend as much time with your child as possible after your case is concluded, it is vitally important that your next step is to read and understand Fla. Stat. §61.13. Florida law is very specific and very clear about the priority placed on the child’s best interests when making decisions about “all matters relating to parenting and time sharing… ” 61.13(2)(c) If you cannot find this statute on the internet, have your attorney or paralegal print a copy for you.
Many clients declare, “I will do anything to fight for my children!” Usually, it comes as a surprise when my advice, unless a child is in danger, is to abandon that attitude. Under Florida law, this is precisely the wrong approach if your goal is to maximize your time with your children when your divorce is concluded. Fla. Stat. §61.13 contains the factors the Court must consider when deciding how much authority each parent has as well as when and how often each will share time with the children. Remember, the Court is not concerned about your feelings at the end of your relationship. The entire divorce or paternity process will focus on the best interest of the children.
A Parenting Plan
A Parenting Plan is an essential part of your case. The parties may agree upon a Parenting Plan or the Court will impose one. The Parenting Plan is designed to address all aspects of each parent’s future relationship with the minor child. The State’s public policy is to ensure “each minor child has frequent and continuing contact with both parents after the parents separate or the marriage of the parties is dissolved…” 61.13 (2)(c)(1). The law assumes that decision-making (parental responsibility) will be shared unless the Court finds (through evidence – not your opinion) that shared decision-making would be harmful to the child. Examples are a parent’s conviction for misdemeanor domestic violence or incarceration for a substantial period of time before the child turns 18 years old. If proof of this type is presented, the other party may present evidence which refutes or discredits those claims.
When the Court makes decisions about a Parenting Plan, including a time-sharing schedule, the best interest of the child always are the primary consideration. Fla. Stat. §61.13 (3). Any time the parties are in Court for a hearing or trial, the judge is watching both parents and will make final decisions about each parent’s rights and the child’s best interests. Below are the factors, set forth under the statute, which the Court uses to render a decision:
- The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship, to honor the time-sharing schedule and be reasonable when changes are required.
- The division of parents’ responsibilities after the divorce, including the extent to which those responsibilities will be delegated to third parties.
- The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to determine the best interests of the child and to consider and act upon those interests, instead of taking action based upon the parent’s own needs or desires.
- The length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment – the goal is to maintain the continuity of a stable environment for the child.
- How well the Parenting Plan works geographically, paying special attention to the needs of school-age children and the time required to travel and carry out the Plan.
- The moral fitness of the parents, as well as their mental and physical health.
- The reasonable preference of the child, if the Court deems the child to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding and experience to express a preference.
- The demonstrated knowledge, capacity and disposition of each parent to be informed of the child’s circumstances – this includes the child’s friends, teachers, medical providers, daily activities and “favorites”.
- The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to provide a consistent routine for the child such as discipline and daily schedules for homework, meals and bedtime.
- The demonstrated capacity of each parent to communicate with the other parent and keep him or her informed regarding the child’s issues and activities – each parent is expected to be willing to present a “united front” on all major issues.
- Evidence of domestic and/or sexual violence, child abuse, abandonment or neglect, regardless of whether legal or court action was taken.
- The particular parenting tasks customarily performed by each parent and the division of parental responsibilities before and during the litigation, including whether those responsibilities were undertaken by third parties.
- The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to participate and be involved in the child’s school and extra-curricular activities.
- The demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to maintain an environment free of substance abuse.
- The capacity and disposition of each parent to protect the child from the ongoing litigation – this is accomplished by not discussing the case with the child, not sharing documents or electronic media related to the case with the child, and refraining from disparaging comments about the other parent to the child.
- Any other factor relevant to the determination of a specific parenting plan, including the time-sharing schedule.
This statute tells you precisely what the Judge is considering when you are in Court regarding any mater – the Judge is watching, listening and going through these factors as to each parent.
You must place your love for your child and your child’s welfare far above your disdain for the other party. Though your actions, not just your words, show the Court that you fully understand your child is best served when you foster a healthy relationship with the other parent, speak about that person with respect and place the welfare of your child as your top priority. Remember, children have plenty to deal with when you and your spouse or the other parent divorce or otherwise separate. Your child is not breaking up with you or your spouse – it hurts them to hear hateful or disparaging remarks about the parent he or she loves. Also, do not ever involve your child in the litigation or make comments that the other parent is not cooperating or will not allow time-sharing. Handle those issues through your family law attorney
or in Court.
Finally, unsolicited advice I provide which is not legal – make sure you get support from family, friends, your church or a counselor, to help you through this life-changing transition. This has proven to be very beneficial for the children, as their parents learn to feel better about themselves and their future.
By taking steps (versus talking) which demonstrates that your children are your number one priority, you substantially increase your chances of achieving your goal to have the maximum amount of time to love and parent your child.