There are some people who thrive in a chaotic, unpredictable environment, but most of us do better with a certain amount of steadiness and predictability. This is especially true when we're going through some kind of stress or upheaval; having stability in our lives helps us to cope and function. If this is true for adults, it is even more true for children, who have relatively little control over their lives and environment. Stability is comforting and reassuring; it helps an often-confusing world make sense. That's why the stability of a child's environment is one of the “best interests” factors Florida courts evaluate when determining parental responsibility and time-sharing, also known as custody.
The best interests factors are contained in Section 61.13(3) of the Florida Statutes. Subsection (d) of that law references “the length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment, and the desirability of maintaining continuity.”
Let's unpack that section of the law a little bit and consider how it could affect your Florida custody case.
What is a “Stable, Satisfactory Environment” For a Child?
Stable means steady and secure, not likely to be changed. If a child has lived in the same place, with the same people, for most of his life, that environment can be said to be stable. As noted above, stability is important for children. It is unsettling for children to move every few months, or even every year, especially if a move means changing schools. Sometimes a move is unavoidable, but unnecessary, frequent residential changes will not reflect favorably on a parent seeking custody.
An environment must also be “satisfactory.” That is a little harder to define, but most of us can probably identify “satisfactory” when we see it. The house or apartment may not be richly furnished and immaculate, but it is safe and reasonably clean. Meals don't have to be gourmet, but there should be enough nutritious food to eat, with relatively predictable mealtimes. The adults in the home should care for the children and protect them from harm, not neglect or abuse them.
Is there space in the house for the child to sleep and play? It is not necessary for every child to have his or her own room, but it is good for a child's development to have physical space in which he can simply be a child without being underfoot. Likewise, it is beneficial for a child to have the space and opportunity to play safely outdoors.
This factor can turn into a competition between parents over who can provide a “better” environment, especially if one parent has more resources than the other. It doesn't need to be. Again, the statute isn't asking for perfection.
Let's not ignore the last part of this “best interests” factor: “...the desirability of maintaining continuity.” As a general rule, it is almost always preferable to maintain continuity in a child's living environment if possible. It may be even more desirable in certain circumstances.
For instance, let's say your child is on the autism spectrum or has anxiety. For kids with these and other conditions, change and transition may be difficult, and stability and steadiness even more important than for most children.
In situations where both parents have a satisfactory home environment, a finding on this factor may simply come down in favor of the home in which the child has been living, just because continuity is a good thing.
Preparing for Your Florida Custody Matter
Facing a custody matter, whether in the context of a divorce or otherwise, is a good opportunity to look at your life through the perspective of a judge. Is your home a good place for your child? Are there things that you could do to make it better?
Don't panic if you have had to move recently, or if you are in a smaller, more humble home than your estranged spouse. The stability of a child's environment is only one of twenty factors that Florida courts consider, and there are things you can help do to ensure that your home is seen as a “stable, satisfactory environment.”
If you have had to move out of the marital home, try to make sure that your child has their own space in your new place so that it feels like home to them, not just a place they are visiting for a while. Control, as far as possible, who else spends time in your home, and make sure your child is always safe and supervised there.
If you have questions about this aspect of the Florida best interests factors, or about Florida child custody law in general, we invite you to contact Florida family lawyer Antonio Jimenez. Antonio can help you understand how Florida custody law applies to your situation, and help you to maximize the chances of a successful outcome in your custody matter.