Many considerations factor into each child custody decision. Parents’ desires for custody, parents’ relationships with their children, parents’ history of childcare, and many others factors all help determine the best child custody arrangement. Often overlooked, however, are children’s custodial preferences. In most states, courts are required to consider children’s opinions when deciding custody.
This article will explain how a child’s preference affects custody in Wisconsin. If you have additional questions about the effect of a child’s custodial preference in Wisconsin after reading this article, you should consult a local family law attorney.
Wisconsin judges decide custody for parents who can’t come to a custody agreement on their own. Each court considers a variety of factors before issuing a custody order, including the following:
To read more information about custody decisions in Wisconsin, see Child Custody in Wisconsin: The Best Interests of the Child.
Wisconsin courts will consider children’s custodial preferences whenever their age and maturity allows them to voice reasonable opinions about child custody. Children 14 years old or older have the right to select a parent, and if the court approves, the judge will award that parent custody. When children are under the age of 14, the court decides on a case-by-case basis whether to consider the child’s wishes when creating the custody arrangement.
For a child 14 or older, a judge will only overrule the child’s custodial preference if the selected parent is unfit to have custody. For example, courts may consider parents with histories of abuse, or drug or alcohol problems, to be unfit to have custody. Otherwise, judge will grant the selected parent custody.
Children under the age of 14 must be able to state substantial reasons why they prefer one parent to the other before their preferences affect custody decisions. Courts won’t grant children’s preferences for superficial reasons such as a parent giving more lavish gifts or lax discipline. Judges give more weight to reasons such as a child’s closer relationship with one parent, or a parent’s greater involvement in a child’s life.
In Wisconsin, children usually don’t have to testify about their custodial preferences in court. Judges have several options to obtain children’s custodial preferences without placing them in the difficult position of choosing between their parents in front of them. Most often, courts prefer for children to speak with professionals who can then communicate the children’s custodial preferences to the court.
Sometimes judges appoint guardians ad litem, which are attorneys that represent children’s interests in custody cases. Guardians ad litem thoroughly research all factors relevant to child custody decisions, and communicate those factors to the court, including children’s custodial preferences.
Other times, mental health professionals or custody evaluators meet with children; they can also testify in court about children’s preferences. Parents’ attorneys can cross-examine any professionals who testify.
Alternatively, judges interview children privately in court chambers, outside of their parents’ presence. In-chambers interviews are less stressful for children than testifying on the witness stand. When a court interviews a child in chambers, a court reporter must make a transcript of the conversation for the case record.
In the rare instance that children testify in court, judges are careful not to let attorneys badger the children on the witness stand. Courts can limit attorneys’ questions or choose to ask the questions instead of the attorneys, to ensure children aren’t placed in even more difficult positions.
If you have additional questions about the effect of children’s custodial preferences, contact a Wisconsin family law attorney for help.