Eliminating Consideration of Parental Wealth in Post-Divorce Child Custody Disputes

There may be no story as old as that of the child of privilege, spoiled in the things of the world, who finally achieves happiness through coming to appreciate the simple charms of working-class life. But equal in strength are the real life stories of American parents: their drive for the accumulation of personal wealth, so frequently justified as “for the children.” The place of wealth in the good life of a child is deeply controversial, and it should surprise no one to see it played out in child custody law. Under the statutes of almost all states, custody disputes between divorcing parents must be decided in the “best interests of the child.” These statutes often list particular factors that are to be considered when deciding children’s interests, such as “[t]he love, affection, and other emotional ties existing between the parties involved and the child.” Some statutes also expressly forbid consideration of particular factors, such as the gender of the parent. Even with these attempts to narrow the inquiry, the best-interests standard remains notably vague. This inevitably leads to serious disputes about which factors ought to be considered, and how much weight they should be given. Perhaps the most troubling of these disputes has involved the relevance to the custody decision of each parent’s ability to provide the child with material goods.