Over the years, I have had clients tell me that a child or children wants to live with one particular parent most of the time or all of the time and the next question is “How old does a child have to be to choose which parent to live with?” These folks “hear” that if a child is 12 (or 13 or 14 or 15…), the child has the right to make the final decision as to with whom the child wishes to stay.
The simple fact is that a child’s age has very little to do with it and Pennsylvania law does not recognize any particular age as allowing a child to automatically decide. If the parents need to take the issue of custody to Court, it is very unlikely that a child would have to take the witness stand and be examined and cross-examined. Even Judges have hearts but more importantly, Judges know that by speaking with the child in the Judge’s office, what is best for the child may be more easily determined. (Parents are frequently not present for these discussions as children are very easily influenced by just a parent’s presence let alone what a parent might be moved to say.)
In such a discussion, the Judge will assess the child’s maturity and ability to understand the situation. Perhaps more importantly, the Judge will see that the child may choose a particular parent for the wrong reason. Many children prefer the parent with the fewest “rules” favoring the one who lets the child “get away with” bad or inappropriate behavior more than the other. Very few children understand that a parent with no or few rules may not be the best parent in the long run (assuming that the rules imposed by the stricter parent are reasonable, of course). Such discussions help the Judge determine if a parent’s main intent is to be the child’s friend instead of the child’s parent. It is difficult to be both and being mainly the child’s friend is usually an easier path even if it is not the best decision for the child.
A child’s insight into its life with each parent, when intelligently and maturely expressed by the child, is far more important than the child’s age. A nine-year-old may tell the Judge that a parent loves the child because that parent does what is best for the child even if it may make the child unhappy from time to time. On the other hand, a fourteen-year-old may say that a parent loves the child because the child is allowed to stay up late on school nights, feign illness to stay home from school, and does not care what grades the child receives. To which of those two children’s idea of good parenting will the Judge give the most weight? It is easy to see that age will have nothing to do with the Judge’s decision, right?
Ideally, both parents would understand and want what is best for their child. They will each concentrate on parenting the child and not winning its affection by relaxing the rules and being the child’s friend first and parent second. There are, of course, life circumstances where, day-to-day, one parent’s occupation will not allow as much time being spent with a child, but the Judge understands and considers that. (Incidentally, Judges have heard literally everything. Parents who think they can fool a Judge are very badly mistaken.) When both parents are on the same good-parenting page, a child is less likely to have a strong preference and the Court avidly supports the child spending as close to equal time with each parent as possible… and that should be the parents’ goal as well.
Accordingly, if you are wondering whether or not your 13-year-old will be permitted by the Judge to stay with you, I trust that you now understand that your child’s ability to express itself intelligently and maturely will carry most of the weight. And if you have been a good parent, you will have little to worry about.