The courts grant child custody to the parent who is capable of working in the “best interests of the child.” A child’s preference for living with a particular parent is just one of the many “best interests” factors that the courts consider before deciding which parent gets the physical/primary custody.
The courts will take the child’s preference in a custody case into account so long as the child is considered “sufficiently matured” by the state. In most states, a child is presumed to be sufficiently mature if he is above 14.
Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and Tennessee have specified that children who are 12+ can be considered as sufficiently matured, while Georgia considers children over 11 as sufficiently mature. In Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wyoming a child cannot choose which parent he/she wants to live with until the child is 18-years-old. Note that this information holds as of April 2022 and it is subject to change.
Also note that after a child chooses the preferred custodial parent, the selection must be consistent with the court’s independent findings regarding the child’s best interests. The courts can assign a weight to the child’s custody preference and the weight is sometimes directly linked to the child’s age. In general:
- If the child is under 9 years of age, the courts will not consider the child’s custodial preference.
- If the child is 14 years of age or more, the courts will consider his custodial preference and assign an appropriate weight to his/her preference.
- If the child’s age is between 9 and 14, then how much weight is to be assigned to his/her preference depends on the circumstances of the case.
Why Courts Evaluate the Child’s Choice of the Custodial Parent
Children often get shaken up when they find out their parents have separated or are about to separate. They may wonder how their time will be shared between the parents, where they will sleep, whether they will get the same conveniences as they did in their existing home, and whether they were the reason for the divorce. In other words, when the news of divorce lands on their laps, children have a lot to worry about, and they may make the wrong choice while being confused and worried.
So, the courts take it upon themselves to decide which parent can deliver on the “best interests of the child” criteria. The objective is to ensure that the child is placed in a loving, caring, healthy, secure, and stable environment that can contribute to his health, education, and well-being.
Courts in most states give weight to a child’s opinion, but don’t automatically accept it because of the following reasons:
- The child may choose to live with the richer, more popular, or flashier parent.
- The child may have feelings for a parent who the courts opine is not suitable to care for the child.
- The child may make the wrong decision if he loves both his parents equally.
- The child may choose a parent who gives him a lot of gifts or is generous with allowances.
- The child may choose a lenient or casual or a fun parent to live with.
The judge, custody evaluator, or the guardian ad litem interviews the child in a private setting, and in some cases, the parent’s attorneys are also allowed to witness the interview. The parents are not allowed though. After checking the “best interests” factors and obtaining the child’s opinion, the courts issue the custody order, and the child must comply with it.