When parents go through a divorce, one of the most painful realizations that they may face is that their relationship with their children will go through some changes. Even though shared custody is the norm these days, that still means that your child won’t be living with you full-time.
What happens, however, if your child wants to live exclusively with their other parent, leaving you with nothing but visitation? How much sway does your child’s preferences have over the court?
It’s a common (but mistaken) belief that teens can pick where they live
It’s widely believed that teens 14 years of age and older can simply decide their own custody arrangements and pick where they live – but that’s not actually how things work.
In every child custody case, the court is obligated to make all decisions based on what is in the child’s best interests, whether those reflect the child’s wishes or not. The child’s wishes are only one factor among many that can be considered, and they don’t necessarily outweigh any other factor that has to be considered.
The court will consider the child’s opinion (along with a number of other factors)
Generally speaking, the older and more mature the child, the more weight the court will give their preferences. To ascertain that, the court (in the person of the judge) will usually ask the child to articulate the motivation behind their request. The court will want to make certain that the child’s reasons are healthy and that they’re making the request out of a heartfelt desire, not merely reacting to undue pressure from one of their parents.
Other factors that have to be considered in custody decisions include:
- The child’s physical, emotional and educational needs and each parent’s capacity to provide for those needs
- How well the child is currently adjusted to their living situation, school and community and whether there’s any benefit to be gained from a change
- The mental and physical health of all parties involved
- The willingness of each parent to facilitate a healthy and loving relationship between the child and the other parent.
- The presence of any domestic violence or abuse by either parent toward the child or from a member of a parent’s household to the child
In cases where the parents are at odds about a custody situation or there are allegations that a child is being coached, coerced or bribed by one parent into expressing certain wishes, the court has the power to appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL). The GAL can do a deep dive into the situation and investigate any allegations made by either parent (or the child). That helps them understand the family dynamic and make a custody recommendation to the court.
Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that “the best interest of the child” is what always governs custody issues – not what Mom wants, not what Dad wants and not what the child wants. If you’re involved in a hard-fought custody issue, learning more about how things work and obtaining experienced legal guidance can help.