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When Can a Child Choose Custody?

9 min read
Unbundled Legal Help

by Unbundled Legal Help

The older children get, the more rebellious and independent they become. Many parents have heard their child say (in a civil conversation or an argument) that they would like to live with the other parent. Though this is usually said in the heat of the moment, it can cause a parent to wonder “When can a child choose custody?”  

In general, children cannot choose custody (regardless of age). The judge will consider a child’s custodial wishes according to the circumstances of the child custody case and the age of the child. However, a child’s preference is only one factor in a judge’s final ruling. 

Learn more below about the role a child’s preference plays in child custody decisions. We can connect you today with a local child custody lawyer to learn the best way to handle this matter.

At What Age Can a Child Decide Which Parent to Live With?

While a child’s preference is not the primary factor considered by a family court during child custody hearings, it can play a significant role in the outcome of a case. Most states do not have a law that specifically defines how much weight a child’s decision should hold in child custody cases. 

However, the older a child becomes, the more influence they can have on custodial matters. Judges handle each case differently. Ultimately, the judge makes a decision based on what’s in the best interest of the child. 

Who Decides Child Custody?

Parents are used to making all decisions concerning the best interest of their children. When a child custody agreement cannot be reached by parents before they go to court or during mediation, the final decision of child custody is left wholly up to the judge presiding over their case. 

Parents who draft and sign a child custody agreement before going to court retain more control over what happens to their child and are more likely to have their agreement approved by a judge. 

If you cannot agree with your co-parent before going to court it is recommended that you hire a child custody lawyer to ensure that you are adequately represented. 

How Does the Court Decide Who Gets Custody?

In addition to the preference of the child and the parents, a judge takes into account many factors before ruling on a disputed child custody case. A few of the more common considerations include:

  • Professional Recommendations: The recommendations of professionals such as mediators, child custody evaluators, and other experts play a significant role in child custody decisions. 
  • Documentation: Documentation can help to prove a parent’s level of involvement in a child’s life, dangers presented by their co-parent, etc. 
  • Safety and Stability: Judges are more likely to grant custody to a parent that can provide a safe and stable environment for their child. 
  • Parent’s Resources: A parent’s ability to feed, clothe, and generally take care of their child is heavily considered. 

Regardless of the evidence presented and recommendations made, a family court judge will make a final ruling based on the best interest of the child. This is why it can be crucial for parents involved in disputed child custody cases to hire a proven child custody lawyer. Otherwise, it can be difficult to effectively present compelling evidence. 

Does a Child’s Preference Impact a Judge’s Decision?

There is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. A judge will take into account the child’s age, maturity, and reputation when considering the child’s preference in child custody disputes. In most cases, a judge will speak with a child privately to determine what their wishes are. 

Sometimes, children are called to testify. However, this is not normal. Judges are careful not to make final rulings based on a child’s wishes alone. After all, a child may desire to live with the other parent for reasons unrelated to what’s in their best interest such as fewer rules, no supervision, or the other parent has a nicer home. 

How Can Custody Be Changed? 

Parents and their children may decide that the original child custody agreement no longer works and needs to be changed. In other cases, only one party may wish to make changes. Regardless of which parent desires a change, family courts allow for either parent to request a child custody modification. 

However, judges typically require parents to prove that there has been a substantial change in circumstances (that warrants a modification) and the requested changes are in the child’s best interest. 

Substantial Change in Circumstances

Substantial changes in circumstances are typically permanent changes (not intentionally made by a parent) that have a significant impact on the parent’s ability to fulfill the custodial duties outlined in the original child custody agreement. Examples of a substantial change in circumstance include:

  • A parent moving to another state to work
  • Loss of job
  • Unstable or unsafe living environment
  • Abuse and/or neglect
  • Educational considerations
  • A parent’s physical or mental health deteriorating

Best Interest of the Child

Like original final rulings made in child custody cases, a judge rules on the merits of a child custody modification request based on the best interest of the child. Parents that agree to modifications before going to court increase the likelihood of approval, they can also save time, and decrease the cost of legal fees. 

What if My Child Refuses Visitation?

If you intentionally block your child from visiting your co-parent (when they have visitation rights), then you can potentially face legal consequences. However, it is not always a parent who refuses visitation. In some cases, it is the children who refuse visitation. This occurs more often the older they get. 

However, if visitation is court-ordered, it is in your best interest to facilitate and encourage your child to visit their other parent. If you are unable to convince your child to follow the court order, it may be time to consult with a child custody lawyer. 

My Child Feels Unsafe, How Can I Get Immediate Custody? 

All states enact laws that protect children in the case of emergencies. If your child has shared with you that they feel unsafe at your co-parent’s home, there are steps you can take to claim immediate sole custody of your child and/or limit visitation. 

Emergency hearings occur much faster than traditional child custody hearings. They are reserved for situations in which the child is in imminent and verifiable danger. Examples of dangerous situations can include emotional abuse, neglect, physical abuse, drug abuse, etc. Effectively collecting and presenting this evidence to the court may require a child custody attorney. 

If your child claims that the other parent’s home is not safe, and there is no available evidence, a judge may order an investigation including input from social workers, child custody evaluators, teachers, childcare workers, medical professionals, etc. This process can sometimes take months to conclude. 

Do I Need to go to Court if My Child Wishes to Live With My Ex?

It depends. If your child currently lives with you and wishes to live with your ex because they don’t like your rules or expectations, then it may be a situation that simply calls for a discussion. However, your child can still express their concerns to the other parent. 

This may cause your co-parent to informally request a change in custody or file for a modification of child custody (if you do not agree to the changes). Additionally, if you agree to let your child live with your ex, it must be approved by a family court judge before it can be legally enforced. 

Skipping the court process can have negative consequences for you as well as your child. It is typically in your best interest to speak with a child custody lawyer before you agree to make changes to your current parental plan. 

Should I Hire a Child Custody Lawyer?

You have the right to make changes to child custody on your own, but this is not usually recommended. It is best to retain legal representation in most child custody matters, and there are a few circumstances in which it is very highly recommended to hire a family law attorney. These include:

  • You believe your child is in danger
  • You and your ex no longer agree on the current child custody agreement 
  • You and your child agree that a change in custody is in their best interest
  • Your child and your ex agree that a change in child custody is in the child’s best interest
  • Your ex is not fulfilling their custodial duties
  • You cannot effectively negotiate with your ex on child custody matters

How Much Can I Expect to Pay a Lawyer?

Family lawyers can be expensive. Most child custody attorneys charge $3k - $5k just to start on your case, and an additional $300 - $500 per hour on top of that. Needless to say, most people cannot afford traditional lawyers. 

Unfortunately, such high costs leave many parents underrepresented and vulnerable to exploitation and unfavorable outcomes in child custody cases. 

Tips to Save Money on Legal Fees

Legal fees can add up quickly, but there are ways to save money. One of the most effective methods of saving money on legal fees is to develop and maintain good relationships with your child and co-parent. If this is accomplished, disagreements about custody can be discussed as a family. That can save you thousands in legal fees and court costs. 

Additionally, many parents hire an unbundled attorney to help them save money while still retaining a proven child custody lawyer to help with certain parts of their case. Learn more below about how unbundled legal services can save you money on legal fees. 

Save Money With an Unbundled Attorney Today 

With unbundled legal help, you can hire a child custody lawyer to help with the parts of your case that you need help with, and then take care of the rest on your own to save money. Essentially, if your case is a good fit to be unbundled, you will save thousands of dollars in upfront fees. 

Fees for an unbundled attorney start as low as $500 - $1500. 

If your case is more complex, our network of small law firms and independent unbundled family attorneys have fair and affordable fees for those requiring full representation. Before you pay thousands of dollars in attorney fees, complete an online request and get connected to an unbundled attorney today.

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