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Parental Medical Issues in Custody Matters


Family in need of attorney

The Gainesville Attorneys of the Law Office of Alba & Yochim P.A. represent clients in a variety of complex family law matters, such as matters in which a parent’s mental or physical health present a concern over parenting capacity. Custody proceedings involving a parent with medical issues require special attention, due to the potential impact that a finding of parental impairment can have on custodial rights. On one side, there is a parent that needs to ensure the safety and well-being of their child, and in some cases may need to seek sole custody in order to do so. On the other side, there is a parent that may (or may not) be suffering from a medical condition, and therefore needs to defend their parental rights.

Consider the role of parental medical issues from the perspectives of each parent:

Proving Parental Impairment due to Medical Concerns

Logical connection between impairment and harm/detriment to child

Parents must remember that the mere presence of a medical condition, in and of itself is insufficient to deny custodial rights. Rather, that parent must show that the medical condition has some impact or effect on the child’s well-being. For purposes of sole custody, it is necessary to show that shared parental responsibility would be detrimental to child. An experienced attorney can explain whether there is a logical connection between a parent’s mental or physical health and their capacity to parent.

Proper evidentiary basis

While the law in Florida permits judges the authority to use discretion in ruling upon child custody matters, this discretion is not limitless. However, without providing the proper evidentiary basis to support claims of the other parent’s impairment, as it relates to detriment/unfitness/child’s welfare, the court can only enter a ruling based upon the evidence that is in front of them (i.e. in the record). Even if the other parent has a previously diagnosed, ongoing, or recurring mental or physical condition, simply stating this fact to the court is generally not enough.

In other words, where evidence of impairment is not already part of the record pertaining to a child custody proceeding, the party wishing to introduce such evidence, must provide the court with sufficient evidence, such that the court can properly asses the presence or absence of a parenting impairment. Some experts suggest, regarding child-centered custody determinations, the following tips for judges dealing with mental health-related impairments in custody matters, which are useful to parents as well:

  • Obtain a complete mental health history from treating professionals.
  • Determine if the parent is consistently taking prescribed medication.
  • Determine if the parent is consistently attending any recommended therapy sessions.
  • Assess whether the child can cope with and understand mental health issues in light of his/her development.
  • Determine how the parent diagnosed with mental illness is assisting the child with understanding the illness.
  • Determine how the other parent is assisting the child with understanding his/her former partner’s illness.
  • Avoid stereotypes about particular illnesses.

Demonstrating which custodial arrangement is best for the child

Parents must remember that even if one parent is granted sole parental responsibility, that the other parent will generally be granted some form of time-sharing with the child. Although extremely rare, in some cases it may best that the child have no contact whatsoever with the other parent. More commonly, parents will focus on how the interests of the child may be best served through placing conditions on the other parent’s exercise of time-sharing, such as ordering supervised visitation. Consequently, whenever the mental or physical health of a parent presents a concern over parenting capacity, the other parent should go a step further in their presentation evidence, by educating the court as to why a particular custodial arrangement is more suitable than another.

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Defending Claims of Parental Impairment due to Medical Concerns

Disputing harm through Proper evidence

Just like a parent seeking to prove the other parent’s impairment must support such claims with sufficient credible evidence, defending such allegations requires equal, if not more, evidentiary support. Consider the following hypothetical:

Parent A is claiming that Parent B has a physical or mental condition which inhibits that parent’s capacity to properly care for the child. Parent A has supported such claims through: (1) Ensuring that the court has been provided with Parent B’s medical history and records; (2) Requesting and obtaining a court order that Parent B submit to medical evaluation (3) Presenting character witness testimony; (4) Presenting expert testimony from a qualified medical professional; and (5) Providing the court with other credible evidence which demonstrates that on prior occasions the other parent’s conditions have impacted or effected the child’s safety or well-being.

So long as the court finds Parent A’s evidence to be credible, Parent A has built a great case for establishing impairment. Parent B needs to combat the same. Keep in mind that when issues remain in dispute, and a matter proceeds to trial, both parents will have a good idea of the evidence expected to be presented at trial, pursuant to rules of procedure. In other words, Parent B will know what Parent A will present, and vice versa. Therefore, in the hypothetical provided above, Parent B, wishing to defend his/her parental rights, must be prepared to present equal or greater evidence contradicting Parent A’s claims. For example, Parent B may wish to present evidence that he/she has no such alleged condition or that, even if it does, it has no effect on his/her parenting abilities.

Limiting time-sharing restrictions

Where the court already has, or it is more likely than not, that the court will find a medical or health issue to be problematic, in terms of parenting capacity, parents must be prepared to argue against potential custodial limitations. For example, where the other parent is seeking, or the court orders, that visitation be supervised, the parent subject to supervision may want to request the court allow a family member or relative to supervise, as opposed to requiring that time-sharing take place at a state-approved visitation center.

Whether you are the parent that is asserting the other parent’s potential impairment as a basis for detriment/unfitness, or are defending allegations of impairment, it is critical to support your claims or defenses through credible evidence. Parents must keep in mind that the court must support its findings based upon competent, substantial evidence. An experienced attorney can ensure that the court is provided with proper evidence, and evaluates such evidence in accordance with the law.