In Minnesota, family law judges are not compelled by law to listen to a child's preference when making decisions in custody disputes.
Judges must weigh a variety of factors when deciding whether to take a child's preference into consideration. This blog post will examine some of the issues.
At what age?
Much to the disappointment of more than one teenager, the age of the child may have no bearing on whether a judge decides to listen to his or her preferences regarding child custody in Minnesota.
Judges rarely make their decisions in a vacuum. They will talk to social workers and the Guardian ad litem assigned to the case to determine whether the child exhibits enough maturity and good reasons for having a preference. Age really isn't the deciding factor, although a judge will place more weight on what an older sibling says than the youngest.
Maturity can help a judge determine whether to give the matter more thought. Children under the age of seven will rarely have a say in the decision, but eight, nine and ten year olds frequently get their day in court. When deciding, the judge's first priority must always be to make sure the child's best interests remain paramount, not the child's best wishes. Children who wish to express a preference may have personal reasons for doing so, which may not align with their welfare.
Jennifer was only nine when her parents divorced. Her two older siblings were in high school and were given the chance to state their preference to remain with their mother. The matter was not discussed with Jennifer.
As years passed, the two older siblings graduated from high school and moved out of the house to attend college. Jennifer was now 14 and was spending more and more time with her dad, who lived nearby.
Jennifer finally decided that she wanted to move into her dad's house full time, or at least have the option to do so. She found a sympathetic lawyer who helped her with the paperwork to sue for custody reversal and had her mother served the legal papers while at work one afternoon.
Jennifer's father claimed he knew nothing about the decision, but used the opportunity to support Jennifer and took over the case as plaintiff. Jennifer's mother felt that she had no choice but to go along, in order to prevent another damaging, prolonged court battle.
The judge handling the case met with Jennifer in his chambers, then met with her parents to work out an agreement. In the end, the case was resolved by modifying the order to joint custody, with the father getting more than 50 percent parenting time, requiring no further child support obligations.
In Jennifer's case, the judge listened based on her maturity and sound reasons for wishing to move in with her father, due to his failing physical health. The lingering question, of course, is whether he coerced her into filing the suit in order to avoid further child support payments
If you are in a divorce or paternity custody dispute in Minnesota, don't assume your child will have a say. Talk to an experienced family law attorney to decide the best strategy for making sure your child's best interests will remain the highest consideration.