Courts make many important decisions when parents of minor children separate, none more important than the child’s custody arrangement. While you are probably aware that the court will consider the parents’ wishes when determining custody, you may not know that in many states, the judge must also consider the child’s preference.
This article will explain how a child’s preference affects custody in Connecticut. If you have additional questions about a child’s custodial preference in Connecticut after reading this article, you should consult a local family law attorney.
Judges deciding custody must consider a number of factors, including each of the following:
In Connecticut, courts also require separating parents to complete a parenting education program. To read more information about custody decisions in Connecticut, see Child Custody in Connecticut: The Best Interests of the Child.
In Connecticut, there is no fixed age at which point a court must consider a child’s preference. Still, courts will generally consider the opinion of children aged 13 or older and disregard the opinions of children who are five or younger. When children are between the ages of five and 13, however, the court decides whether the child’s preferences are relevant to the custody decision on a case-by-case basis.
After hearing a child’s preference, the court will first decide whether the child is making an intelligent choice about the parent with whom he or she wants to live, rather than just an “in the moment” preference based on day-to-day minutia. For example, courts are not likely to view a child’s preference as relevant when it's based on momentary anger with one parent or the child's whims. Courts are more likely to consider a preference that's based on big-picture reasons, like a closer relationship with one parent.
If the judge decides that a child’s preference is relevant to the custody decision, the judge then has to determine how much weight to give the preference, compared to other custody factors. The child’s maturity and the reasoning behind the preference can affect how much weight the judge places on the child’s opinion.
A court can disregard a child’s preference when the judge believes it's not in the child’s best interests. So, even though a child may want to escape one parent's rules or discipline to live with a parent that is more lax, a court may decide structure is an important part of a child’s upbringing and therefore disregard that part of the child’s opinion. For example, if Johnny prefers mom's house because she lets him play video games all night, a judge will likely disregard Johnny's choice since it's not really in the child's best interests.
Connecticut courts are very sensitive to how difficult it may be for a child to testify in court and generally won’t require a child to testify on the witness stand in a courtroom. More commonly, the judge will ask for the parents’ permission to interview the child in chambers, outside of the parents’ presence. If the parents don’t consent to the interview, the judge may try to discover the child’s preference through the use of a family-relations counselor, a psychiatrist, or a psychologist who can speak to the child and report back to the court. The court may also listen to limited remarks of other witnesses who have spoken with the child, although that testimony won’t be given as much weight as statements made directly by the child.
When the in-chambers interview takes place, the parents' attorneys may observe. To reduce stress to the child, the judge will usually ask questions (not attorneys), although attorneys can suggest questions or topics that should be covered. If the child has his or her own attorney, he or she will be present, and if the child doesn’t have an attorney, a domestic relations officer will sometimes sit in on the interview to represent the child’s interests.
Finally, a court reporter will usually record the interview; if no court reporter is present, the judge must make his or her own record by restating the content of the interview and allowing anyone else present to add their own comments.
Courts are also careful to watch for any signs that the child has been coached to testify in favor of a parent or against a parent. Any parent’s attempt to manipulate the child’s testimony could backfire against that parent in the judge’s custody decision.
If you have additional questions about the effect of children’s custodial preferences, contact a Colorado family law attorney for help.