Does the Richer Parent Win Custody?


When parents head toward divorce, they may be on the same page about child custody, or they may be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Dad wants the kids to live with him. Mom wants them too; neither parent can agree.

If one parent has committed domestic violence, or if abandonment, severe mental illness, child neglect, child sexual abuse, or an untreated substance abuse problem is an issue, the other parent has a moral responsibility to address this in court for the safety of their children. But what if no such issues exist? What if both parents are emotionally stable and loving, but the one thing that distinguishes them is one parent’s wealth? Should the richer parent win custody based on their income alone?

Using ‘Wealth’ as Ammunition

It is a common belief among wealthy individuals that if they have nothing else in their arsenal, to use their wealth as ammunition against the dependent or lower-earning parent. Sure, they may work longer hours, but they have a mother who’s available round-the-clock to watch the grandchildren or they can afford to hire a live-in nanny to take care of the kids full-time but is this rationale based on reality?

It is very common for the wealthy spouse to work and support the family while the other spouse gives up a career to care for the couple’s children. This long absence from the workforce can definitely impact the stay-at-home parent’s employability. In the event of a divorce, the dependent spouse may find it very difficult to earn a good living initially, especially if they don’t have a college degree or if their job skills are outdated and need to refreshing before they are employable. The family courts are keenly aware of this.

Often, it’s the father who is the wealthier spouse, though we have our share of female clients who out-earn their husbands, or whose husbands are stay-at-home dads. “Does the richer parent usually win custody?” While income is always a factor in child custody disputes, NO, the richer parent does not automatically win custody based on wealth alone.

Best Interests of the Child Doctrine

In these types of child custody disputes, the court will carefully examine all relevant factors and render a decision that is in the best interests of the couple’s children. For example, a father who earns $1 million a year and lives in a sprawling estate, may not win custody of his children, even though his wife can only afford a tiny two-bedroom apartment across town on her salary of $30,000 a year.

If the mother has been the children’s primary caregiver, a judge may believe that she has established a strong bond with the couple’s children and the kids are better off living with her than living in their father’s mansion. Essentially, all factors have to be weighed.

If the same mother abandoned the children for six months to run off to Hollywood and pursue acting, or if she moved in with a boyfriend who has a criminal record for drug manufacturing and violent felonies, the judge could very well award custody of the children to the father, even though the mother used to care for the children full-time. It’s very fact-specific but regardless, it all comes down to the “best interests of the children,” and being richer doesn’t in itself, mean a parent will win custody.

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