One of the most frequent questions posed by my clients involved in physical placement disputes is “At what age can my child decide which parent he/she wants to live with?” My short answer is usually “When he/she is 18.” Although “the wishes of the child” is one of approximately fifteen statutory factors that the court is required to consider in deciding what type of physical placement schedule to order, what the child “wants” is not always what is in the child’s best interest. In addition, the courts generally believe children (even older children) are not emotionally mature enough to make such an important decision and do not want to create a situation where children are placed in the middle of their parents’ legal disputes or where they feel forced to choose one parent or the other. In the end, it is the parents’ responsibility to make decisions about placement schedules, and when parents cannot agree, then the court has to decide what type of placement schedule is in a child’s best interest.
Even so, there are times when a child chooses to speak up about what he or she wants in terms of a placement schedule with each of his or her parents. Generally speaking, the older a child is, the more weight his or her wishes will be given. The court will also consider if the child is generally mature and if they articulate reasonable and rational reasons for their choice. For example, a 17 year old who struggles making good choices in school and in the community, and who wants to live with a parent who provides minimal supervision rather than a parent who holds them accountable, is less likely to sway the courts than a 14 year old child who does well in school and who expresses concerns about being with one parent because of that parent’s lack of involvement or interest in the child’s school work and extra-curricular interests.
Physical placement disputes are some of the most emotionally-wrought and adversarial disputes that can occur in a divorce and unfortunately, the ones who suffer the most from this acrimony are the children. The most ideal resolution is for the parents to work cooperatively to determine together what type of placement arrangement is in their child’s best interest. When that is not possible, then parents should proceed very cautiously so as to not purposefully or inadvertently put their child in the middle of the dispute, make their child feel like they need to “choose” a parent, or unduly influence the child in any way. When a parent sincerely believes that granting him or her primary placement of their child is in the child’s best interest, it may be best for them to work with an attorney to determine how best to litigate those sensitive issues without putting their child in the middle.
If you have questions or concerns about any of the information above and how it might apply to your situation, you may contact our office at 715-344-0890.