The court decides custody by determining what is in the child’s best interest. Like division of martial property, each case turns on its own set of facts and circumstances. Typically, the court looks at many factors to award custody, such as the child’s wishes (if the child is old enough to convey his or her desires), the needs of the child, the ability of the parents to provide a stable home environment, the child’s educational needs, and the character and fitness of each parent (such as criminal records or a history of drug and alcohol abuse).
In making a determination, the court may order that the child be appointed a neutral third party, known as a guardian ad litem, to make a recommendation to the court as to what is in the child’s best interests. The guardian ad litem will meet with the child and each parent, the child’s family members and teachers, and other witnesses. Additionally, the court, the guardian ad litem, or the parties may request that a licensed professional prepare a “custody evaluation” based, in large part, on the psychological profiles of the parents and their motivations for custody. Additionally, the guardian ad litem may request that court appoint an attorney to represent him or her in the trial of the case. Importantly, in addition to paying attorney fees, the parties may be required to split the cost of the guardian ad litem’s fees and the fees of the guardian’s attorney.