Each year in the United States, more and more parents of minor children separate. Many parents view the custody decision as a battle between the adults' preferences. In many states, however, the court is also required to consider the child’s opinion when determining child custody.
This article will explain how a child’s preference affects custody in Iowa. If you have additional questions about the effect of a child’s custodial preference in Iowa after reading this article, you should consult a local family law attorney.
When parents can’t come to an agreement for their child’s custody, a judge will have to decide for them. The court must consider a variety of factors when deciding child custody, including each of the following:
To read more information about custody decisions in Iowa, see Child Custody in Iowa: The Best Interests of the Child.
The court will consider a child’s preference when he or she is both old enough and mature enough to have a meaningful opinion on custody. There is no set age when the judge will consider the child’s opinion; each judge determines each child’s maturity on a case-by-case basis. However, teenagers are usually old enough to have an opinion the court must consider. Younger children are sometimes more susceptible to pressure from parents or superficial reasons, such as gifts or lax discipline; the opinion of a child eight or younger usually won’t factor into the custody decision.
Courts will look at several factors when deciding how much weight to give a child’s preference. The judge will consider the strength of the child’s preference and whether that preference has wavered. The child’s intellectual and emotional make-up also affects the weight of the child’s preference. Courts also consider the reasoning behind the opinion. For example, if a son is unhappy in his mother’s home and wants to live with his father simply because he’s seeking “greener pastures,” the preference won’t be given as much weight as if he were happy in both homes, but simply has a closer relationship with his father.
Courts don’t have to follow a preference when it’s not in the child’s best interest. In one case, a mother took her son, moved him away from his father, and refused to reveal her address or telephone number to prevent the father from contacting the child. The judge ruled that the child was better off with the father despite the child’s stated preference to live with his mother.
The court will also reject the opinion of a child who has been coached by a parent to state a particular preference. In fact, coaching the child can backfire against that parent in the custody decision. In one case, the court found that a nine-year-old girl’s testimony had been manipulated by special treats, activities, and her father telling her that he’d be deeply hurt if he didn’t win custody. In this case, the court refused to give custody of the child to the father, despite the daughter’s stated preference to live with him.
Iowa judges normally won’t require children to testify in court about their custodial preferences. Asking a child to choose between parents can be appropriate in limited circumstances, but it can also be cruel and inappropriate in other situations. Iowa courts believe that asking a child to testify about custodial preferences in front of the parents may cause the child to testify out of fear or based on what the child believes the parents want.
Judges will often interview children in court chambers to determine their custodial preferences. Parents aren’t allowed to be present during the in-chambers interviews, but the parents’ attorneys may attend. Usually, the judge will ask the child questions, although the attorneys can sometimes suggest questions. A court reporter should also be present to record the interview.
The court can refuse to interview a child if the judge believes he or she has enough information about the child’s preferences from other sources. For example, in one case, the court noted that the children had changed their opinions multiple times depending on which parent they were talking to. The judge decided that interviewing the children wouldn’t be much help.
Alternatively, the court may discover the child’s custodial preference by appointing an expert to meet with the child. Iowa judges can appoint a custody evaluator or a mental health professional to meet with the child and parents separately and put together a report for the court. The report will usually include extensive information about all the factors affecting custody, including the child’s preferences.
If you have additional questions about the effect of children’s custodial preferences, contact an Iowa family law attorney for help.