At the core of a custody dispute in a divorce is your child. You may think that the child should be in your sole custody but your spouse might wholly disagree and think that the child should be in his sole custody. The court will take the both sides' arguments into consideration when determining custody division. But when will the Court look to the child and ask for his/her preference for living with mom and/or dad? Does the child even get a say in the matter?
The conventional thought has typically been that a courtroom is not a place for a child and as mature adults we should not be directly entangling children in custody disputes. Consequently, there was a time in California when a child's preference regarding custody after his/her parents divorced really wasn't considered by family law judges unless the child was in his/her late teenage years. However, a child's preference regarding which he/she lives with, how the child can make that preference known to the court and the appropriate age for a child to be able to make a choice has evolved over the years.
Family Code Section 3042 became operative in January 2012 and changed the game with regard to a child's custody preference. Family Code Section 3042 provides that: "If a child is of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent preference as to custody or visitation, the court shall consider, and give due weight to, the wishes of the child in making an order granting or modifying custody or visitation." Although the law does not require children to testify, if the child is 14 years of age or older and wishes to address the court regarding his/her preference for custody or visitation, the court is required to hear from that child absent a good cause finding that it would not be in the child's best interest to do so (and the judge states the reasons on the record). If the child is under the age of 14 and wishes to address the family law court regarding his/her custody preference, then the court may allow the child to testify "if the court determines that it is appropriate pursuant to the child's best interests." California Rules of Court 5.250 is intended to implement Family Code section 3042.
The above changes in the law are significant considering that previously courts seldom allowed children to testify. Again, no law or court rule requires children to participate in the custody proceedings in court. However, when a child wishes to participate, the court must balance its duty to consider the child's input with its duty to protect the child. While family law judges have the discretion to listen to a child's custody preference, this does not mean that the judge will follow every aspect of the child's preference.
Regardless of whether you are the parent who seeks custody based on your child's preference or you are the parent opposing your child's preference, we understand that this is a sensitive situation that could greatly affect your family and your relationship with your children. Our team can provide you with the caring and outstanding legal counsel you need and deserve. If you would like to discuss your rights under California's child custody laws, we encourage you to contact us as soon as possible.