Can a Child Decide Custody?
by Unbundled Legal Help
Deciding child custody can be complex, frustrating, and stressful for parents and children alike. While both parents undoubtedly have their preference for who gets custody, it’s natural to wonder what role do children play. Can a child decide custody and/or have a major influence on the judge’s decision?
While a child’s preference can carry considerable weight in child custody cases, it is typically not the deciding factor. Judges take into account many variables when determining what is in the child’s best interest and who should have custody. Learn more about a child’s role in determining custody below.
The Role of a Child’s Opinion in Custody Decisions
Every child custody case is unique. There are no concrete rules that dictate how much influence a child’s wishes should have over a judge’s decision to grant custody in favor of one parent or another. A child’s preference does play a key role in a final decision handed down by the court, but it is not the deciding factor.
Generally, a judge will only consider a child’s desire in custody cases if it is deemed to be within their best interest. If it is not, then the child will have to live with the parent that the judge determines regardless of whether they want to or not.
Furthermore, a child typically cannot change a child custody order. A potential exception to this rule is if they are old enough to speak for themselves and can prove that they are in physical and/or emotional danger. In those cases, a judge may approve a change in custody.
At What Age Can a Child Choose Which Parent to Live With?
Parents are generally awarded custody if the courts deem that it is in the child’s best interest. While a child’s custodial preference only plays a role, that role can become larger if the child is 14 years of age or older.
No law stipulates at what age a child’s preference for custody carries more weight. However, after the age of 14, judges tend to rely more heavily on the preference of a child since they are more mature by that age and can effectively articulate why they believe it is in their best interest to live with one parent over another.
Though the age of 14 is a standard, there are plenty of examples of children much younger who have made strong witnesses in their child custody cases.
Why Children Are Not Allowed to Decide Custody
Decisions about child custody are typically solely based on what is in the child’s best interest. While children have some notion of what is best for them, they are not yet mature enough to make such important decisions on their own.
If the decision of custody was left to a child, they could choose the parent who allows them to stay up late, miss school, eat unhealthy food, etc. Essentially, children are too young to make custodial decisions that will have a major impact on them as well as their parents.
What Factors a Judge Considers When Deciding Child Custody
Family court judges make child custody decisions after considering the totality of many factors. Learn more about what a judge considers before they make a ruling on a child custody case below.
Each Parent’s Living Situation
Where each parent lives can play a vital role in the child custody decision process. Judges take into account things like the safety of the neighborhood, the school system, the number of bedrooms available in the home, roommates that may live with the parent, etc.
If one parent offers a better living environment than the other, that can have a significant effect on the final custody decisions made. Additionally, if there are changes in a parent’s living situation after a final order is given that impacts the child, it could lead to a judge modifying the existing agreement if petitioned to do so by the other parent.
The Relationship Parents Have With Their Child
The child’s best interest is calculated by considering finances, health, safety, the child’s preference, etc. However, the relationship each parent has with their children also plays an important role in the judge’s final decision.
This is where the preference and testimony of a child (as well as other witnesses) can have an impact on child custody rulings. A judge is less likely to grant custody to a parent that does not have a good relationship with their child. Compared to a parent who is a primary caregiver.
The Child’s Preference
As previously mentioned, a child’s preference (especially if over the age of 14) can play a significant role in child custody decisions, but it is not the only factor that a judge will consider in the process.
How Stable is the Child’s Environment?
Stability is key for children and judges know this. The parent who offers the most stability for their child typically has the upper hand in child custody cases. Stability is evaluated by factors such as a consistent address, a regular work schedule, the ability to support a child’s extracurricular activities, emotional stability, and financial resources.
The Child's Overall Best Interest
Though parents typically decide what is in their child’s best interest, in the case of child custody decisions, it is a judge who is left to decide. What is in a child’s best interest will vary on a case-by-case basis.
In most cases, the judge takes into account all of the aforementioned factors plus others when making final determinations. When both parents are vying for custody, it is recommended that you consult with a seasoned child custody lawyer so you have help to effectively present your reasons why living with you is in your child’s best interest.
My Ex and I Mutually Agree on Child Custody; Do We Still Need to Go to Court?
If you, your ex, and the child all agree on custody, it may be tempting to forego the legal process altogether and reach an agreement outside of court. While agreeing to a child custody hearing is beneficial, it is not in your best interest to skip going to court.
The absence of a court order can negatively impact you as well as your child. Child custody decisions made between parents without court approval are not legally enforceable. Furthermore, if there are disputes later, for example, if one parent doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, or there is confusion, you will not have the standing to challenge the other parent in court.
Do I Need to Hire a Child Custody Lawyer?
You have the right to handle your child custody case on your own. However, it is not usually in your best interest. Child custody lawyers help parents to negotiate, draft motions, investigate, present their arguments in court, and determine what’s best for their child.
Going into a child custody battle without legal representation can leave you vulnerable to unfair conditions, endanger your child’s future, and decrease your odds of a favorable ruling.
How Much Will Legal Representation Cost Me?
Hiring a family lawyer to handle your child custody case can be expensive. Most child custody lawyers charge between $3k - $5k to get started on your case and charge an additional $300 - $500 per hour on top of that.
Needless to say, fees can quickly add up. Unfortunately, many cannot afford these rates without putting themselves in unfathomable debt or risking their financial security. Fortunately, there are ways to save money on legal fees.
Tips to Save Money on Legal Fees
The amount of money that you pay a child custody lawyer for representation can have a direct impact on your ability to care for your child and meet their needs. Thus, it makes sense to search for ways to save money on legal fees so your money can be put to better use securing your child’s future. Listed below are a few tips to help you save money on legal fees.
You are not expected to become an expert in child custody laws. However, adequately educating yourself on your state’s laws can save you from costly mistakes during the child custody process.
For instance, if you know that the judge in your case will not look favorably on the hours that you work, it may be best to change your schedule or hire adequate child care services. Making changes before you go to court helps to lessen the load on your child custody lawyer and can potentially result in less time and effort needed to effectively present your case.
Cultivate a Good Relationship with Your Ex and Your Child
A good relationship with your ex can go a long way in saving you money on legal fees. If you can negotiate the terms of your child custody agreement with the other parent before it goes to court, your child custody lawyer has considerably less to do.
In addition, if you have a good relationship with your child, you have to worry less about their preference to live with the other parent. That good relationship could save you time and money during the legal process.
Handle Some Aspects of Your Case on Your Own
If you cannot afford full representation, but still desire to hire a child custody lawyer, you may benefit from handling some parts of the case on your own while leaving more complex matters to an attorney. Learn more below.
How Can Unbundled Legal Help Save Me Money?
Many parents face a dilemma when needing a child custody lawyer, but not being able to afford one. Fortunately, those who cannot afford a traditional lawyer for full representation can be good candidates for unbundled legal services.
An unbundled attorney will take care of the more complicated legal matters such as reviewing parental agreements, representing you in court, deciphering the law and how it applies to your case, etc. In exchange, you can handle other facets of your case such as filing paperwork, serving documents, negotiating with your ex, etc.
Fees for unbundled attorneys start at $500 - $1500. It is important to note that unbundled legal services are not a good fit for every case. If you need full representation, our network of small law firms and independent family lawyers offers rates that are typically more affordable than the average child custody lawyer.