In Minnesota, child custody decisions are made based on the “best interests” of the children involved. Like other states, Minnesota has a list of factors that courts must consider when determining what custody arrangement would be in the children's best interests.These factors have remained more or less the same, with some relatively minor adjustments, for over three decades.

All of that has changed in 2015, when Minnesota Statutes 2014, section 518.17, subdivision 1 (the “best interests” statute) was amended, with the changes taking effect on August 1, 2015. The amendments are extensive, to say the least, but they point to a singular goal: to give priority to the needs of Minnesota children, even over those of their parents.

What Do the Changes to Minnesota's Best Interests Statute Mean?

Because the statute has undergone significant changes, a thorough discussion of all of them is beyond the scope of one blog post. Some factors have been removed, some altered, and some added to reflect the realities of life in Minnesota in 2015. That said, there are some major changes of which Minnesota parents should be aware.

Perhaps most telling is the change to the first item in the list of best interests factors: “the wishes of the child's parent or parents as to custody.” This factor was not simply demoted or reworded. The fact that this factor was completely removed sends a clear message that the courts should be focusing more on the child and the child's needs rather than on the parents.

While the factors on the list are not ranked in order of importance or weight, it does seem significant that the legislature would place this factor first, setting the tone for those to follow. And in case the message that the child's needs are paramount wasn't conveyed by the language of the first factor, the second one echoes that message. The next consideration identified by the legislature is “any special medical, mental health, or educational needs that the child may have that may require special parenting arrangements or access to recommended services."

Surprisingly, there was no language in the prior statute explicitly stating that a child's particular needs were to be considered in custody determinations, although the law did direct courts to consider “all relevant factors.”

Another noteworthy change involves the fact that identifying “the child's primary caretaker” was formerly one of the best interests factors. This is no longer true. Instead, courts are instructed to consider “the history and nature of each parent's participation in providing care for the child.” This change transforms the question of caretaking from a yes-or-no proposition to a recognition that both parents may play a significant role in caring for the child. However, this change may be a disadvantage to stay-at-home parents who would formerly have benefited from recognition as the primary caretaker in a custody dispute.

Applying the Best Interests Factors

In addition to telling courts what factors to consider regarding the best interests of a child, the amended statute contains nine clauses guiding courts on the application of the factors. This includes making certain presumptions, even if they're not called that in the statute.

The legislature appears to be presuming first that it's in a child's best interests to have close relationships with both parents, and second, that both parents are capable, in their own way, of nurturing a child. However, when addressing the topics, the word “presumption“ is not explicitly used. Whether language in the statute amounts to a presumption is important, because presumptions have legal weight and can affect the outcome of a decision.

The legislature DOES use the word “presumption” when addressing the issue of joint legal custody. On the request of either party, courts must presume that joint legal custody is in the best interests of the child. However, this presumption is rebuttable, meaning that either parent can offer evidence that joint legal custody is not in the child's best interests.

Other guidance provided by the nine clauses reflects contemporary sensibilities. The disability alone of a proposed custodian or of the child cannot determine custody. And when considering the best interests factors, courts are instructed not to take into account a party's conduct that does not affect the party's relationship with the child. Of course, if a person's conduct does affect their parenting, it would be a consideration.

All in all, the state legislature appears to have tried to update the best interests statute to reflect modern values and needs. As with most new or reworded laws, however, it is almost certain there will be disagreement and litigation over how some provisions are interpreted.

One thing is certain, however. If you are involved in, or expect to be involved in, a Minnesota custody dispute, you should have the guidance of an attorney who understands the new best interest factors and how courts are likely to apply them. Please contact us at Mundahl Law with any questions you have about the 2015 changes to the Minnesota best interests factors and how they could affect your custody matter. We look forward to working with you.