We regularly get asked at what age can a child decide which parent she or he will live with. I was asked this again just the other day. Frequently, the person asking is under the impression that a child can make their own decision after they turn 12; I am not sure where this persistent rumor comes from, but it may have something to do with parents thinking .custody in the event of their death
Washington Law Determines When Your Child Decides
While I cannot speak to the laws of other states, under Washington State law, an unemancipated person under the age of 18 does not have the ability to make their own residential decisions. The parents (and sometimes the court) are the ones who are empowered to make those and most other decisions for the child. Once a person turns 18, they are adults and can make their own decisions.
Basically, it comes down to the idea that we don’t let children make decisions for their parents. We allow parents to make decisions for their children.
Your Child Still Has a Voice
This does not mean, however, that the child may not have a voice. Under Washington State law, when making residential decisions, the court may consider “the wishes of a child who is sufficiently mature to express reasoned and independent preferences”. In other words, it is not about age, it is about maturity. The wishes of a 17-year-old child who wants to live with a particular parent because that parent will buy them a car shouldn’t carry much weight, but the wishes of an 11-year-old who believes one parent provides a more stable environment could carry a good deal of weight.
Most often, the information about the wishes of a child will come in through the report of a Guardian Ad Litem or Parenting Evaluator appointed by the court. Although it is permitted, generally, the courts do not interview a child directly.
These Matters Are Handled Delicately
As a general rule, the child will never be specifically asked to state a preference. The courts frown on putting the child in a position where they have to take sides in their parents’ dispute, i.e., to choose which parent has their loyalty. A properly done interview will simply give the child space to express their own feelings or preferences if they want to do that. Some children feel very strongly that they want to be left out of any decision-making (they don’t want to be disloyal to either parent), while other children feel very strongly that no decision should be made without consulting them and may be very vocal about their preferences.
The Best Interests of The Child Will Control
Ultimately, the judge will make their decision on what best serves the child’s immediate and long-term needs. This means that the judge may determine that a 50/50 custody arrangement may be in the child’s best interest despite the child’s stated desire to live with one parent for the majority of the time. This may seem harsh, but the law tries to balance the child’s wishes with each parent’s need to have a healthy relationship with the child.
This is also why you need to seek legal help if you believe your child has valid reasons for choosing one custody arrangement over another. While abuse or neglect are obvious reasons for not wanting to live with a parent, your child’s wishes regarding their education, social circles, and their general living environment deserve careful attention and experienced advocacy.
At What Age Can My Child Refuse Visitation?
Just like the decision as to where to live, children can refuse to visit a parent once they have turned 18. Up to that point, however, the situation is more complex, as there is no set age at which a child can refuse visitation.
Obviously, the court may take action to enforce a visitation order when one parent is interfering with the visitation rights of the other. But if the child is refusing, the outcome will depend on a variety of factors:
- The age of the child
- The reasons for the refusal
- Whether there have been material changes to the other parent’s living situation
- The relationship between the child and the other parent
- The proximity of where the other parent lives compared to the child’s school, friends, activities, and other social connections
A teenage child who is refusing visitation will likely be given greater consideration than a young child who may simply be reacting poorly to moving between two homes.
Parents in this situation need to proceed carefully. You may be expected to abide by the parenting plan when you have a young child who is just being difficult. On the other hand, you may not be expected to physically force an older teen to cooperate. Ultimately, it may require an adjustment to the parenting plan, but you should consider seeking advice from an attorney if your child is refusing visitation.
Contact a Child Custody Lawyer Today
Your child’s custody arrangement is of vital importance to both you and your child, especially when the child has expressed a strong preference. A child custody lawyer can provide guidance for those parents who are just starting to sort out their custody arrangements as well as those who may be considering a modification to an existing parenting plan. To discuss your situation and how we can help, contact us today at 206-784-3049.