While many issues must be resolved when spouses separate, child custody matters are frequently the most hotly contested issues in a Rhode Island divorce. The term “child custody” refers to two separate types of custody, physical and legal. Physical custody refers to the parent with whom the child will live while legal custody refers to the parents’ ability to make important life decisions for their children.
Each state has its own laws regulating how judges resolve child custody issues. In Rhode Island, courts use the “best interest” standard, which focuses primarily on what is in the best interest of the child. Of course, this may not necessarily be in line with the expressed interests of the child, especially if they are young. Interestingly, Rhode Island lawmakers never defined what factors courts should consider when deciding what is in the best interest of a child. Thus, in the 1990 case, Pettinato v. Pettinato, the Rhode Island Supreme Court listed several factors that should be considered. Since then, these factors have been termed the “Pettinato factors.” Therefore, when deciding what is in the best interest of a child, courts must consider each of the following:
- The wishes of the child’s parents;
- The preference of the child, if the child is “of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference”;
- The child’s relationship with her parents, siblings, or anyone else who may impact the best interest of the child;
- The child’s adjustment to her home, school, and community;
- The physical and mental health of the child as well as the parents;
- The stability of the child’s home environment;
- The moral fitness of each of the child’s parents; and
- The willingness of each parent to foster a meaningful relationship with the other parent.