By Brenda L. Storey, Esq.
A common question is at what age can a child determine when he/she will see the other parent. The simple answer is when the child reaches the age of 18. Until then, such a decision is not for a child, just as other adult decisions are not for children: Whether to go to school, whether to do homework, when curfew will be, and so on. Adults make these decisions, focusing on what is best for that particular child.
Now, the more complicated answer…Our statute requires the court to look at all relevant factors, as well as many specific factors. One of those specific factors, tucked within the others, is the child’s wishes as relates to parenting time, if the child is of adequate maturity to form an appropriate opinion. This does not correlate with age. A 16 year-old with raging hormones may decide he wants to live with his father, who is not home often, does not have schedules or rules for the son, drives fast cars, and often hosts parties with alcohol and attractive women, rather than with his mother. That is not really a mature decision by the child, and the other factors will carry much more weight in deciding what parenting time schedule is best for him. In contrast, a 5 year-old could express that she does not like it when she wakes up in the middle of the night and cannot find her mom, or when she does find her, her mom is in the bathroom and hard to wake and smells funny, and as a result, she likes staying with her dad where she feel safe. Those are mature concerns and wishes, and to be considered heavily with the other statutory factors.
These examples are rather obvious. The more complex situations are when a child is saying they do not want to go to the other parent’s home, but it is not so clear why. The why is what needs to be explored. The why is what the court explores. Is it because the other parent is emotionally or physically abusive? Is it because a parent is telling the child they do not have to go? Is it somewhere in between? Oftentimes, an expert is needed to assess the full situation, report back to the court as to findings, and make recommendations. These expert reports can also help the parents to reach common ground. The goal, of course, is to do what is best for the child.