A trial court is required to conduct an evidentiary hearing to consider a child's best interests before awarding custody — even when the parties have entered a marital settlement agreement and neither party formally moves to set such agreement aside.

Jason Sparks petitioned for dissolution of marriage and sought full custody of his child. Previously, he had entered into a marital settlement agreement with his then-spouse, Jennifer Sparks. The agreement, which was not prepared with the advice of counsel, called for joint custody with liberal visitation.

In her summary judgment motion, Jennifer argued that the agreement controlled. Though the trial court denied her motion, it limited its inquiry to whether the agreement was procured by fraud or duress and whether it was facially unreasonable. Concluding it was not, the trial court adopted Jennifer's proposed parenting plan incorporating the agreement.

This approach was contrary to the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, the 1st DCA found. Jason's petition for dissolution and his affidavit in opposition to the summary judgment motion was sufficient to trigger the requirement for an evidentiary hearing. A formal motion to set aside the agreement was not necessary in these circumstances because he clearly alleged the agreement was not in the child's best interests.

"The best interests of the children are to govern the custody decision, regardless of any stipulation between the parties," the court held.

Opinion