California courts focus on the best interests of the child when making custody decisions. The court assesses various aspects, including the physical and mental health of each parent, the child’s relationship with each parent and the ability of each parent to provide a stable and supportive environment to determine the custody situation that serves these.
There is a common misconception that children can choose who to live with after a certain age. While a judge may consider the child’s preference, depending on his or her age and maturity, it is not the sole determining factor.
There is no set age when judges must begin to consider children’s opinions. What is important is the children’s maturity. However, judges do tend to give more weight to what children want as they grow older. They are more likely to give credence to a 17-year-old’s desires than those of a nine-year-old; 14 is the age most California courts use as the metric for deciding if a child is old enough to express which parent he or she wants to stay with.
However, they retain the final deciding power, and if they believe that a child wants to stay with a parent for frivolous reasons such as that parent being more lax or buying their affection. They also may not take the child seriously if they feel the parent manipulated the child. When children express the desire to live with a specific parent, judges may appoint someone to investigate the circumstances surrounding them.
Children do not necessarily need to testify in court about who they want to live with. Instead, judges often have a professional, such as a psychologist, interview them and then report on the findings. They recognize the potential emotional impact and stress that testifying may have on children. However, judges may allow those 14 or older to take the witness stand unless it is against their best interests.
According to Integris Health, the presence of an adverse childhood experience in a child’s past greatly raises the possibility that he or she will develop anxiety, PTSD or depression or commit suicide in the future. Living with a more caring parent can make a big difference in children’s current and future mental well-being. When children want to live with a specific parent, judges can choose whether or not to take their opinions into account, and they generally do if the children are at least 14. However, the decision remains in the judges’ hands.