My parents were married for over 60 years, but it wasn't all a bed of roses. I will never forget how, after one of their big fights, my father asked me who I wanted to live with once they divorced--him or my Mom. I wasn't going to be stupid and answer a question like that--even at ten I knew better! Sure enough, they made up and the question became moot.
However, if I'd thought it was a serious question, this is what I might have answered. I would have said I wanted to live with my Mom, not because she was the better parent, but because she needed me more because of her drug and alcohol addiction. I'm not sure that would have been such a good idea, however!
So how do judges decide who gets the children--do they just ask the kids or what?
The question of who gets custody of the children after a divorce remains a complex and difficult question in some divorce cases. Luckily, most people see the common sense of keeping Mother in charge when she has been the primary parent on an ongoing basis and allowing for generous visitation from Dad. But in divorces where custody is under dispute, how does the Court make the decision in regard to custody, and do judges in these cases take into account the preferences of the children involved?
In CT, under 46b-56(b) the following factors are supposed to be taken into account as follows:
- The child's developmental needs
- Each parent's ability to meet the child's needs
- Each parent's desire to have custody
- The child's relationship with each parent, siblings, and anyone else living in either parent's home that may affect the child's best interests
- The stability of each parent's residence
- Each parent's willingness to encourage a relationship between the child and the other parent
- Whether either parent tries to manipulate the child or involve him or her in the parent's dispute
- Each parent's ability to be actively involved in the child's life
- The child's adjustment to his or her home, school, and community
- The length of time the child has lived in the current environment if it's stable
- The child and parents' mental and physical health
- The child's cultural background
- Either parent's history of domestic violence
- Whether the child has been abused and neglected
- The child's wishes as to custody, and
- Any other factors relevant to custody
As you can see, the child's wishes are way down there under 15. It is not highlighted as a major factor.
However, what I find really interesting when I talk to people who have not yet been to Court over custody is how many parents believe judges put a lot of weight on what the child wants. In fact, what the child wants, even when he or she is a teenager, often isn't a major consideration in regard to custody decisions. I hear so many parents say my daughter or son wants to live with me and he is 8, or 10, or 12 or whatever age, and can now decide. Well, no, that is not the case. Ultimately, the judge decides and the decisions will be made based upon the judges' assessment of all the factors under consideration listed 1 - 16 above, even one as vague as #16 "any other factors relevant to custody."
In addition, keep in mind that the final decision is supposed to be based upon that often vague and greatly vilified standard "the best interests of the child."
I hope all of you noted the "friendly parent" factor that so many protective mother advocates hate item #6 on the list above. We do have a friendly parent factor in the State of Connecticut!
So, despite the limitations involved that I have mentioned, at what age can the Judge begin to take into account the preferences of the child? In the State of CT at younger than 5, the opinion of the child is not a consideration. At 13, the child's preferences have a much greater impact. Between 5 and 13, Judges will consider the child's preferences on a case by case basis, whatever that means. In California, FYI, the age at which a child's preferences are considered is 14.
However, Judges ultimately have complete discretion regarding the impact a child's preferences will have on a custody decision. If the Judge thinks that a child's preferences are based on poor judgment, he or she is unlikely to consider them. As Divorcenet stated "A court can disregard a child's preference when the judge believes it's not in the child's best interests."
Notoriously, if judges believe that a child's preference is founded upon "Parental Alienation Syndrome" PAS, that judge will be unlikely to grant custody to the alleged offending parent no matter what the child says. This is what happened in the Kathi Sorrentino case where the child was 15 and expressed a preference to be with his mother. However, the child's preference, on the most frivolous grounds, was determined to be an expression of PAS so father was given sole custody.
Therefore, people who think their child can make up his or her own mind at the age of 13, this is simply not the case. Case law supports this wishy washy approach as in Knock v. Knock, 224 Conn. 776, 788-9 (1991) where the Supreme Court ruled that the Court "does not require that the trial court award custody to whomever the child wishes, it requires only that the court take the child's wishes into consideration." So a Judge may or may not take a child's preferences into consideration.
So, how does the judge discover what a child's preferences may be. In Divorcenet, there was a complete discussion regarding judges determining a child's preferences by interviewing the child in chambers along with a discussion of how an attorney should manage that kind of interview. In all my time hearing about divorce and custody matters in Connecticut during the last decade, I have never known a judge to interview a child in chambers about his or her preferences. It could be this does happen and I just don't know about it, but still.
Also, there was a discussion of when children can testify in open Court regarding their preferences. I have known many parents to insist that their children ought to have the right to testify in Court regarding their preferences. As far as I can see, judges absolutely frown on parents who insist upon putting their children through the trauma of testifying in Court. This is so certain that I can pretty much say that if you insist upon having your children testify while your ex doesn't, that's about a guarantee that you will not get custody of your children!
For the better part, if there is a custody dispute, what happens is that if your child is under 13, the court will appoint a GAL, a custody evaluator, or a family relations officer to do a thorough investigation of your circumstances in order to present a recommendation to the court which will ordinarily be accepted. If the child is 13 or older, it is likely the child will be assigned an attorney of the minor child in order to advocate for that child's wishes. But all of this is really not rigidly adhered to. I've seen children who have both a GAL and an AMC. I've seen children over 13 who only have a GAL. It all depends upon the politics of your particular case.
The real danger of these investigators is that you have to rely on their word that when they report the wishes of the children that they are actually telling the truth. I have no doubt that they lie on occasion. Thus, if you have any concerns about the investigator in your case, you might want to have your child sit down and write to the investigator stating what his or her preference is so that it is on the record. If the custody evaluator or GAL will not accept it, which is what happened to me, you can simply submit it directly to the Court.
You may be accused of manipulating your child to write the letter, but if you have concerns about the truthfulness of the professionals in your case, it is better to be thought of as manipulative than not have your child's preferences considered at all.
Bottom line is, the State of Connecticut has a presumption of joint legal custody if both of you agree to that. What is interesting is how few attorneys actually explain that to their clients. What you are actually fighting over most of the time is which parent is going to be the residential parent, i.e. the home where the children primarily reside, i.e. what is considered their residence legally speaking for matters such as school attendance. Other than that, the sky is the limit in terms of how much actual time each parent gets to spend with the children.
Traditionally, the visitation is set for one or two evenings a week and every other weekend for the non-residential parent, but I have known people to renegotiate that for more time for the non-residential parent.
When you get down to it, fighting over this day here or that day there to the tune of thousands and thousands of dollars is pretty silly, and most couples left to their own devices will work out a modus vivendi.
The question is do you truly want to create an unpleasant atmosphere by quarreling at every turn. Many abusive family court attorneys and vendors would love you to, but it is your job to see through them and move forward. Trust me, ten years later when you are considering college tuition fees, you will be happy you did so.
Bottom line, again, when it comes to the children's preferences, do not count on them to get you custody because it is not an absolute.