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The Primary Caretaker Standard in New York Child Custody Law

Even in an amicable divorce, child custody disputes can be extremely complicated. Many times, child custody issues become the most contentious issues in the dissolution proceedings. In ending a marriage relationship, the parties need to think not only about the actions they should take to further their own best interests, but more importantly to New York family courts, they must consider the best interest of their children.

In a best case scenarios, the parents involved in the divorce proceedings think carefully and work together to reach a decision about the custody of their children, including parenting and visitation time for both parents, child support, and an overall custody agreement. Often times, a mediator or other collaborative law process may be used to avoid a full-blown court battle. However, sometimes a collaborative and mutually satisfying outcome cannot be reached and the New York Family Court or New York Supreme Court is needed to resolve the issue on which parent should be awarded the title of “primary caretaker” of the children from the marriage. In determining which parent will have the role of the primary caretaker, the court will consider a number of factors, including taking into consideration the best interests of the children. The status of “primary caretaker” is not always determinative of the children’s best interest, because there are a large number of considerations that must be taken into account by the court.

The Standard for New York’s Primary Caretaker Status

In a custody case in New York, the Family Court of the New York Supreme Court often times allows for preference to be given to the parent most able to prove the parent was the primary caretaker for the children during the marriage or during the parents’ relationship if the parents were not married. It is, of course, possible for a custody dispute to arise between parents who were not married.

The determination of a primary caretaker is a relatively new development in family law cases in New York. Its importance and prominence as a consideration when determining the best interests of the children in a custody dispute increased as psychologists increasingly placed focus on the bond formed between children and their primary caretaker. The strong emotional bond that has been developed between the primary caretaking parent and the children is a factor that is given weight based on its corollary relationship to the children’s successful development from childhood to adulthood. The courts have been strongly urged by many psychologists to give strong consideration and weight to the relationship between the children and their primary caretaker when the court looks to the future growth and success of the children.

This determination of primary caretaker has expanded outside the parent-child relationship and has been taken into account in other relationships that are considered by the courts. It has surfaced as an issue in cases to determine the appropriate person to care for elderly persons who have been deemed unable to support themselves either financially, emotionally or physically.

Recognition of a Primary Caretaker in New York Courts

The question then becomes, how does the court determine which parent was the primary caretaker for the children in question? Both parents seeking to have primary custody of the children will bear the burden of proving to the court that they were the parent in who was the primary caretaker during the marriage or the relationship. The court will look to see how the duties of child rearing were divided during the relationship throughout the life of the children, and will look to see how the parents contributed to the children’s growth and emotional development. The court will specifically consider how to what amount each of the parents was involved in the following activities of child rearing and child care:

Preparing and planning meals
Daily grooming and bathing
Washing clothes and dressing the children
Purchasing clothing and personal care items
Teaching academic skills such as math, writing,and reading
Assisting with homework
Assisting with and supporting the children’s involvement with extracurricular activities, sports and clubs
Attending school events and conferences with teachers
Managing the children’s well checks and caring for the children when they are sick

Overall, the activities the court will consider when making a primary caretaker determination are those activities most people consider the the basic, everyday tasks associated with parenting.

Best Interests of the Child

In the end, the court’s consideration of a designation of a primary caretaker for the children in any custody dispute is part of an overall goal to ensure the children will receive the type and level of care they were accustomed to during the marriage or the relationship. The determination can often times be a very complex and difficult one for the court to make, especially in marriages or relationships where parenting activities were equally shared throughout the marriage or relationship. In addition to the caretaking activities, the court will also look to other factors related to the overall best interests of the children when determining which parent to designate as primary caretaker, including:

The children’s preference as to which parent they live with, if the child is old enough to weigh in on the decision
Each parent’s physical health and mental health
Each parent’s emotional and financial health
The ability to further relationships with each parent’s extended family
Any change in school or community
Any evidence of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse from either parent
Alcohol or substance abuse by either parent