Wednesday, March 24, 2010

When Can a Child Decide Where to Live?

One of the most frequent searches on the Internet on family law issues is the question: "At what age can the child decide where he/she will live?" As the Oregon Divorce Blog recently stated, that's a trick question. The answer is that the child can decide at age 18. When the child legally becomes an adult, the court no longer has control over the child. Until then, only the judge ultimately decides.

There are, however, several ways to have some influence.
  • The child can talk to the parents about the decision. As much as I don't like involving children in these decisions, sometimes a child is mature and has a reasonable basis for a change in living arrangements. What's potentially damaging is for a parent to want a change of custody and then recruit the child to become an advocate. That should be avoided. Sometimes parents try to act like the request originated with the child, but it usually doesn't. Another bad situation is when a child works the parents against each other.
  • A Social Study can be done for the court. The social worker can interview the child and evaluate the what the child has to say. The worker ultimately makes a recommendation from all the information gathered from a variety of sources.
  • An attorney can be appointed to represent the child in some cases, but the attorney isn't free. The parties have to come up with the funds to pay the attorney, in addition to paying their own attorney.
  • Sometimes, a court will appoint a psychologist to interview or work with a child. That gives the child an outlet, but it's not free either.
  • In Tarrant County divorce or custody cases, or for visitation issues, the court will often order Access Facilitation. That is a pretty effective process that has the two parents meet with a social worker from the court to discuss and try to resolve custody or visitation issues. There is no cost for that service.
  • The child may be permitted to visit with the judge in chambers and discuss the situation without the parents and attorneys being present, but the judge will always make the ultimate decision. Children are sometimes disappointed with the outcome of that process. Most judges are experienced enough to detect when a child has been programmed or when a child is trying to manipulate the situation. There is no slam dunk result when a child actually gets into a one-on-one with the judge. Nevertheless, the judge can gain some valuable insight into the family if s/he visits with a child in chambers.
The element in common with all those approaches: it's always the judge who decides, and never the child.

There are certainly situations that arise where there is a serious conflict between parent and child, and sometimes a change of scenery is good for everyone. Parents should do their best to keep their children out of the middle, no matter what the case. Actually, the Collaborative Law process provides good, safe opportunities for parents or child to make changes. I will have a new post soon on that approach. In the meantime, feel free to visit my other blog, Texas Collaborative Law Blog.

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