Jul 17

How to Build a Strong Case Showing Your Child’s Best Interests

Written by: Megan Dell


In custody cases, the paramount consideration is always the child’s best interests. Read on to understand how the South Carolina Family Court determines the children’s best interests when making decisions in custody cases.

Origin of the Best Interests Standard

Though the South Carolina Family Court was not established until 1976, viewing child custody decisions using the best interests of the child principle has been reflected in our case law for much longer.

In Koon v. Koon, 203 S.C. 556 (1943), our Supreme Court held: “[T]he well-being of the child is to be regarded more than the technical legal rights of the parties, so that, following this rule, it is generally held that the child will not be delivered to the custody of either parent where it is not to its best interest. The right of the parent is not absolute and unconditional. The primary consideration for the guidance of the Court is what is best for the child itself.”

Against this backdrop, the fundamental principle of a child’s best interests has developed.

Parent who is playing with their young child, keeping the child's best interest in mind

Current Statutory Definition of “Children’s Best Interests”

S.C. Code Ann. Section 63-15-240(B) provides the Family Court must consider the children’s best interests, which may include, but is not limited to:
(1) the temperament and developmental needs of the child;
(2) the capacity and the disposition of the parents to understand and meet the needs of the child;
(3) the preferences of each child;
(4) the wishes of the parents as to custody;
(5) the past and current interaction and relationship of the child with each parent, the child’s siblings, and any other person, including a grandparent, who may significantly affect the best interest of the child;
(6) the actions of each parent to encourage the continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent, as is appropriate, including compliance with court orders;
(7) the manipulation by or coercive behavior of the parents in an effort to involve the child in the parents’ dispute;
(8) any effort by one parent to disparage the other parent in front of the child;
(9) the ability of each parent to be actively involved in the life of the child;
(10) the child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community environments;
(11) the stability of the child’s existing and proposed residences;
(12) the mental and physical health of all individuals involved, except that a disability of a proposed custodial parent or other party, in and of itself, must not be determinative of custody unless the proposed custodial arrangement is not in the best interest of the child;
(13) the child’s cultural and spiritual background;
(14) whether the child or a sibling of the child has been abused or neglected;
(15) whether one parent has perpetrated domestic violence or child abuse or the effect on the child of the actions of an abuser if any domestic violence has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual or between the parent and the child;
(16) whether one parent has relocated more than one hundred miles from the child’s primary residence in the past year, unless the parent relocated for safety reasons; and
(17) other factors as the court considers necessary.

The 2012 law clarified many factors, which can be divided into seven categories:

(1) Your Child’s Temperament and Developmental Needs

Every child is unique, and the best interests principle strives to meet their individual needs.

Children can vary in their levels of activity, their comfort in new situations or with new people, the range of moods they experience, their ability to persist in the face of obstacles, and their susceptibility to distraction. These differences can be observed not only among peers but also among siblings.

Likewise, there can be a wide variation in each child’s physical abilities, cognitive abilities, and emotional and/or social needs. Some children have a greater need for feelings of safety and security. Other children need more consistent discipline and greater structure.

South Carolina Family Court judges aim to comprehend the individual needs of each child. They also strive to ensure each child’s safety and provide them with the most beneficial result.

A small child being hugged by their mother

(2) Your Capacity to Understand and Meet Your Child’s Needs

As a baseline, you must be able to recognize and meet your children’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, which requires fulfilling financial obligations consistently. A parent who is unable to do so is considered to be “unfit” to have custody of their child.

Beyond that, depending on factors and the circumstances of your case, you may need to prove your ability to assess threats to your child’s physical and emotional safety, and your willingness to provide protection from those threats.

Financial Stability

Even if a parent is fit, his or her financial status might affect whether he or she is awarded custody. In Daily v. Daily, 432 S.C. 608 (Ct. App. 2021), the Family Court and Court of Appeals noted concern about the father’s ability to personally provide for the children, as he was an “entrepreneur” and relied heavily on his parents for financial support.

Two parents and an child giving each other high fives.

Limitations Created by Job Responsibilities

Parents with demanding work schedules may have limited time available to spend with their children. Long working hours, multiple jobs, or irregular shift patterns can reduce the amount of time parents have to interact with and understand their child’s needs. Likewise, high-stress jobs or long working hours can leave parents feeling exhausted and mentally drained. When parents are physically or emotionally fatigued, it can be more difficult for them to be present and attentive.

Most challenging can be jobs with inflexible schedules. For instance, if a parent consistently misses bedtime or school activities due to work obligations, they may struggle to understand their child’s daily experiences which can hinder their ability to fully comprehend and address their child’s needs.

Use of Third Party Caretakers

Generally, if both parents are fit custodians, but one parent can stay home and care for the children, then the stay-at-home parent is likely to be the preferred custodian. A parent who is willing and able to personally spend more time caring for the children is likely to have the upper hand. 

However, in Radtke v. Radtke, 297 S.C. 260 (1989), a father was granted custody despite having to rely on childcare provided by a third party. The time a parent has available to spend with their child is important, but it is not — by itself — determinative of the child’s best interests.

Awareness and Pursuit of Resources

Parents who prioritize their children’s needs and seek help from professionals are more likely to get custody. This is especially true if they obtain the necessary medical or educational support for their child. On the other hand, parents who do not prioritize their children’s needs are less likely to be granted custody.

Mom and elementary age child

Mental and Physical Health of Each Parent

The court will also assess the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of each parent. If a parent lacks the capacity to maintain boundaries, it can lead to issues like inconsistency, overindulgence, or a lack of structure in the child’s life. Typically, the mental and physical health of each parent guides whether they are capable of putting their children ahead of their feelings and use sound decision-making strategies.

Emotional instability, psychiatric care, and attempted suicide have also affected analysis of children’s best interests. Peeples v. Peeples, 270 S.C. 116 (1978); Murray v. Murray, 271 S.C. 62 (1978). Drug abuse and habitual drunkenness bear significantly on a child’s best interest.

In Reid v. Pieper, 393 S.C. 424 (Ct. App. 2011), the Family Court gave significant weight to the mother’s ongoing treatment for depression when deciding to award custody to the father. Likewise, in Klein v. Barrett, 427 S.C. 74 (Ct. App. 2019), the custodial evaluation of the parties indicated the mother was more actively controlling in nature while the father was more passive, and these underlying personality traits affected analysis of the children’s best interests. 

(3) How Your Child’s Preference Fits Into Determination of Their Best Interests

Many parents ask, “At what age can a child decide custody?” In South Carolina, a child never has an absolute right to decide which parent should act as decision maker or decide when to spend time with each parent.

Instead, S.C. Code Ann. Section 63-15-30 provides: “In determining the best interests of the child, the court must consider the child’s reasonable preference for custody. The court shall place weight upon the preference based upon the child’s age, experience, maturity, judgment, and ability to express a preference.”

Children can express their feelings to the Guardian ad Litem. However, the Guardian ad Litem and Family Court are not obligated to follow their wishes. Instead, a child’s preference is simply one part of applying the best interests principle.

(4) Your Children’s Relationships: Past and Present

The quality of a child’s relationships with various individuals, including parents, siblings, grandparents, and other parties, can significantly impact their best interests.

Relationships with Parents

If a parent has a deep emotional connection with their child and has consistently demonstrated a nurturing and affectionate relationship, it can be beneficial for the child’s well-being to maintain that bond through custody arrangements.

The level of parental involvement, responsibility, and commitment to the child’s upbringing is an important consideration. If one parent has a proven track record of actively participating in the child’s life, including attending school events, medical appointments, extracurricular activities, and making important decisions, it can demonstrate they will likely have continued involvement in the child’s life.

A child’s best interests are often served when they have positive and healthy relationships with both parents so each parent has opportunities to influence the child and provide guidance and support.

Role as Primary Caregiver

If one parent has been the primary caregiver throughout the child’s life, it can be in the child’s best interest to maintain continuity and stability by awarding custody to that parent. The parent who has been actively involved in the child’s daily routine, including providing care, nurturing, and meeting their needs, is often considered better equipped to provide a stable and familiar environment. Patel v. Patel, 359 S.C. 515 (2004).

Father and child, dancing. He has the child's best interest in mind, keeping her happy.

Sibling Relationships

Sibling relationships are of specific importance. In Moeller v. Moeller, 394 S.C. 365 (Ct. App. 2011), the South Carolina Court of Appeals held that separation of siblings should be avoided unless there are exceptional circumstances present, regardless of whether the children are full siblings, half-siblings, or step-siblings. 

S.C. Code Ann. Section 63-3-530(A)(44) gives the Family Court specific jurisdiction and authority to determine and award sibling visitation.

Grandparent Relationships

Grandparent relationships with the children also can affect the best interests analysis. In some cases, availability of relatives to help care for the children has been considered a benefit. Chastain v. Chastain, 381 S.C. 295 (Ct. App. 2009).

(5) Your Child’s Home and Community: Past and Present

Consistency and stability are essential for a child’s development. If a parent can provide a stable home environment, including a consistent schedule, familiar surroundings, and continuity in education and social connections, it can be advantageous for the child’s overall well-being.

Importance of Child Maintaining Membership in Community

As a practical matter, the Family Court often considers whether the desired custodial arrangement will result in the child having to change schools, make new friends, and establish a new community of their own. Maintaining the existing relationships children have is generally prioritized.

In Grungo-Smith v. Grungo, 438 S.C. 408 (Ct. App. 2023), the appellate court relied upon evidence and testimony demonstrating the children behaved well and “excelled physically, mentally, socially, and academically” while in the mother’s care, despite her working two jobs and having moved five or six times (either to a bigger home or to be closer to the children’s school).

Child’s Cultural and Spiritual Background

Recognizing and respecting a child’s cultural and spiritual or religious background is an important aspect of the best interests analysis. Cultural and spiritual factors shape a child’s identity, sense of belonging, and values. It is essential to consider the child’s cultural heritage, traditions, and beliefs when making decisions that may affect their upbringing. Upholding their cultural and spiritual background can promote a sense of identity, self-esteem, and overall well-being.

Access to Education, Health, and Other Resources

The broader societal context is relevant in determining the best interests of the child. It involves considering the resources available to meet the child’s needs within their community and society. This includes access to education, healthcare, recreational activities, and other essential services that can support their growth and development. The availability of resources can significantly impact the child’s opportunities and overall quality of life.


If there is a proposed relocation or potential disruption to the child’s established environment, it becomes a significant factor in the best interests analysis. The impact of relocation on the child’s relationships, education, community ties, and overall stability is assessed. The court considers whether the move would be beneficial or detrimental to the child’s well-being, taking into account factors such as proximity and relation to family, schools, support systems, and the child’s overall adjustment to a new environment.

Maintaining stable relationships, cultural connections, and a supportive community can enhance and protect the child’s overall sense of security, identity, and well-being.

(6) Your Ability and Willingness to Encourage Your Children’s Relationship with the Other Parent

The Family Court views behaviors intended to undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent negatively, and they can result in the other parent being awarded custody of the child. Sheila R. v. David R., 396 S.C. 41 (Ct. App. 2011).

Limiting Access to Child

If one parent engages in restrictive gatekeeping or limits the other parent’s access to the child, those actions can harm the child’s relationship with both of their parents. 

When one parent actively minimizes communication between the child and the other parent, those behaviors are likely to be viewed as attempts to interfere with the child’s affection for the other parent. 

A parent’s inability — or unwillingness — to enable or facilitate communication between the child and the other parent does not serve the child’s best interests. Daily v. Daily, 432 S.C. 608 (Ct. App. 2021).

Disparagement of Other Parent

Sometimes, a parent consistently criticizes or speaks negatively about the other parent in front of the children. Such behavior can cause emotional distress for the child and undermine the child’s relationship with the criticized parent. 

Disagreements Between Parents

Children benefit from being shielded from adult conflicts and disagreements. Exposing the child to ongoing or intense disputes between parents can create emotional distress and instability. 

The best interests analysis considers the impact of exposing the child to adult disagreement and assesses whether it poses a risk to their emotional well-being and development. Sometimes, the ability of parents to communicate effectively is determinative of whether they are granted sole custody versus joint custody. Klein v. Barrett, 427 S.C. 74 (Ct. App. 2019).

Two sad children in a room with two paretns who forgot to keep their child's best interest in mind.

(7) Effects of Domestic Violence and Other Abuse on Best Interests

Prior to enactment of the 2012 statute, the common law of South Carolina provided that domestic violence between the parties, or physical cruelty, could affect the best interests analysis when determining custody and visitation. Divine v. Robbins, 385 S.C. 23 (Ct. App. 2009).

Proving Best Interests Requires Focusing on the Positive

In the heat of a child custody case, many people lose perspective: Family Court judges are focused on deciding what is best for your child or — in other words — how to craft the most favorable, positive outcome for them.

Don’t focus on providing evidence of how inadequate the other parent may be. Instead, unless the other parent is unfit, offer evidence that is more relevant for the Court’s determination: identify and prove how you can provide the best possible environment for your child. Such evidence is more consistent with the legal reasoning used by the Court so it is, often, more effective.

In the complex landscape of custody cases, seeking advice from a knowledgeable divorce lawyer is crucial to presenting your case in the most positive light. Make the wise choice to consult a divorce lawyer, and empower yourself to present your case in the most positive and compelling way possible.