Can Children Choose Which Parent To Live With In California?

There’s no denying that divorce is hard on every family member, but it can be especially difficult for any children involved. Child custody and visitation agreements can feel stressed or awkward, especially when the child doesn’t feel like they have a say in these new arrangements.

In California, family courts consider many factors when deciding which parent may be awarded primary custody. One of the factors that judges consider is the child’s preference, but it’s not the only or even the most important factor.

Whether you’re going through a divorce in California or trying to figure out the best custody arrangements, you need to understand just how much bearing your children’s preferences will have over the matter. Today, we will cover a breakdown of how children’s opinions of which parent they want to live with may shape the outcome of your child custody agreement.

Does a Child’s Parental Choice Affect Custody?

The answer to whether or not a child’s parental choice affects the custody agreement is, it depends. The family court judge will listen to the child’s opinion given that they are of sufficient age to express an intelligent opinion on custody or visitation, but ultimately, the court’s decision will be based on the child’s best interests.

Whenever possible, courts opt for shared custody, which has shown to be the least stressful for children. However, shared custody is often not a viable option, and a choice has to be made.

Children may have firm opinions about living with one parent or another, but if there’s any doubt that the preferred parent will be the best choice, the child’s opinion may hold little weight in the final decision. Every situation is unique, and ultimately the courts will strive to place the child with the most suitable parent to meet the child’s needs.

When Does a Child’s Preference Matter?

Just because a child prefers to live with one parent over another, it doesn’t mean that the judge will award custody to that parent. For a child’s preference to matter, the child must be of sufficient age and ability to express an intelligent opinion about which parent they would prefer to live with.

In California, the law allows children age 14 and up to express their parental preference to aid in determining custody. However, no matter the child’s age, a judge will consider their preference in evaluating the overall suitability of the custody arrangement.

Keeping the Child’s Best Interest in Mind

Just because a 14-year-old may have a preference for one parent over another, it doesn’t mean the judge will automatically grant that parent custody. Children and teens can be emotional and rebellious, so family courts consider many factors when assigning custody.

If a child states a preference to live with a parent who is ‘less strict,’ it won’t automatically mean the child’s preferred parent will be given custody. If there appears to be parental pressure, or if the child’s preference is intended to alienate one parent, a judge may not consider the child’s preference in the ultimate custody decision.

Sometimes, a child may prefer a parent who cannot take care of the child or who might be abusive and threatening. Children may feel a sense of duty to one parent over another, despite their preferred parent being incapable of caring for the child.

All of these situations are difficult, which is why multiple factors are considered before custody arrangements are made.

Do Children Have To Testify Their Preference

While the courts may allow a child to testify their preference before their parents, it’s not necessary. If the child is very young, or if a great deal of emotional pressure is put on the child, they may express their opinion to their family lawyer or even speak with the judge’s chambers, away from the parents.

Every situation is unique, and the judge will try to find the best way to ascertain the child’s preference without putting undue stress on the child. This may even happen during family mediation or in another setting outside the courts, such as a child interview center.

What if You Disagree With Your Child’s Preference?

Most parents want what’s best for their children, but it can be devastating for a parent to hear that their child prefers to live with the other parent. Ultimately, custody is granted based on what is best for the child, but this doesn’t make it easy for the parent who won’t be living with their child.

Stability is essential for these custody arrangements, but as children age, circumstances may mean that these arrangements need to be altered. Custody agreements are not set in stone, and they may be changed if the courts decide that situational changes warrant adjusting the custody arrangement.

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