Is “Best Interest” Anything the Judge Wants?

When a parent wants to file a suit that affects their rights and duties concerning their children, they file a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (also called a SAPCR). A SAPCR must be filed as part of a divorce action, if the spouses have children, because the legal obligations and rights of the parents concerning the children must be established as part of the divorce. Otherwise, a SAPCR can be filed independently of a divorce, to establish the rights and duties of the parents, as is often done when the parents of the child were never married.

In either case, the judge is ultimately charged with deciding how those rights and duties ought to be allocated. For example, a judge must decide what person has the exclusive right to determine the primary residence of the child and must also decide what possession and access the other party (or parties) should have to the child. Other things, such as child support, are also typically determined in a SAPCR. How does the judge decide these things? The Texas Family Code provides some guidelines and presumptions on how this should work. Things like the Standard Possession Schedule give guidance to judges on what arrangements are typically appropriate in most circumstance. Even within these guidelines, however, judges are given broad discretion to determine what arrangement is best. Specifically, many sections of the family code concerning children include a portion that says that a judge must make the determination that the requested relief is “in the best interests of the child”.

So, is “best interest” anything that the judge wants it to be? Well, no, not really. The Texas Family Code provides a number of guidelines to help a judge determine what is best for the children. Nonetheless, the Code doesn’t actually tell the judge precisely how these factors should be weighed against others nor does it contemplate exactly all the factors that might be taken into account. In the end, the final determination is left to the individual judges, with each judge determining on a case-by-case basis how each of these factors (or other factors) should be weighed. Although ‘best interest’ may not mean ‘anything goes’ for the judge, it does mean that the judge has a lot of room to consider a range of factors and weigh those factors however he or she deems is appropriate for the circumstances of the child.

Written by Victoria Jones, 3L

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