When can a child choose who he/she will live with?

One of the most common questions that I get asked is what age a child has to be in order to choose who he/she lives with.  The short answer to this in the State of Missouri is 18.

There seems to be a common myth that a child gets to choose at a particular age.  The most common ages that I hear are 12, 13, and 14.  When a child is 14, he or she must consent to an adoption.  However, there is no mention of age in the custody statutes, other than the age of 18.  When a child is below the age of 18, he/she is supposed to have a Parenting Plan outlining the amount of time that he/she spends with each parent.  There is a presumption that frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact is in the best interests of the child, and, therefore, the vast majority of Parenting Plans will include overnights with each party.

Unfortunately, since so many people believe that their child gets to make the choice, children are very often put in the middle of their parents’ custody battles.  Parents, some wittingly and others unwittingly, place pressure on their children to say who they want to reside with.  Given a child’s desire to make his/her parent happy, most are going to say that they want to live with the parent asking the question.  Parents further place pressure on children by saying bad things about the other parent and telling the children all of the reasons why it is better for them to reside with that parent.  In some situations, this has the effect of turning a child against a parent.

With all of the above being said, one of the 8 custody factors that a Missouri court looks at is the child’s wishes as to custody.  So, while a child does not get to make the final decision, his/her wishes are not a non-factor.  In weighing this factor, the Court will consider the child’s reasons for feeling the way he/she does.  If it is obvious that a child wants to live with one parent because the rules are lax and homework isn’t a requirement, the Court is not going to place any weight on that wish.  In fact, the Court could use that information to go completely against the child’s wishes.

Since a child’s wishes is one of the 8 custody factors, children, unfortunately, often get called on to testify as to their wishes.  This is unfortunate because it places a child directly in the middle of his/her parent’s custody dispute.  Many children begin crying in the middle of their testimony.  It is my opinion that parents, whenever possible, should avoid placing a child in that position.