There are more children of separated or divorced parents in the United States today than ever before. With all of the emotion involved in a separation or divorce, parents sometimes fail to consider their children's desires when making custody decisions. However, under Utah custody laws judges often consider an older child's preference when determining custody.
This article explains the impact of a child's preference on child custody in Utah. If you have additional questions after reading this article, contact a local family law attorney.
Parents can work out their own custody arrangements or go to Utah family court and have a judge decide their case. In either situation, a custody order must address both physical and legal custody and meets a child's needs.
"Physical custody" is where the child lives. A parent with physical custody primarily lives with the child. Parents can share physical custody (called "joint physical custody") or one parent may have "sole" or "primary" physical custody.
Your custody order will dictate how much time each parent spends with the child. Parents with joint physical custody will spend substantial, but not necessarily equal amounts of time with the child. The parent who spends the most time with the child is typically designated as the "custodial parent". The other parent is called the "noncustodial parent." See Utah Code § 30-3-10.2 (2020).
"Legal custody" refers to a parent's right to make major educational, medical, religious, legal, or cultural decisions on the child's behalf. Like physical custody, parents can share legal custody or one parent may have sole decision-making power over the child. In situations where parents share legal custody, the custodial parent will still have the final say on decisions where the parents can't agree.
Under Utah custody laws, your custody order must set forth a visitation schedule covering weekly, monthly, holiday, and summer visits. Both parents are entitled to regular time with their child and neither parent can prevent visits. Even in cases where a parent has struggled with substance abuse or physical violence, a judge may award that parent visitation – usually supervised.
A noncustodial parent without joint custody is entitled to minimum visitation under Utah's custody laws. Generally, this equates to one weeknight per week with the child and overnight visits every other weekend. A judge can award a parent additional visitation time, but not less. The Utah Courts website provides more information on child custody and parent-time in Utah.
In limited circumstances where a child's safety and well-being at issue, a judge may grant one parent only supervised visits. Supervised visits take place at a designated location or agency. A parent will be required to have his or her visits supervised until a judge can be sure a child is safe in that parent's care.
Utah courts decide child custody whenever parents can't come to an agreement on their own. Yet even in cases where parents agree on custody and visitation, a judge will review a custody agreement to ensure it serves a child's best interests. Utah family courts must consider several factors when deciding child custody in Utah, including:
For more information about custody decisions in Utah, see Utah Code § 30-3-10 (2020).
A child's preference is one of several factors a judge will weigh in a Utah custody case. The child's age and maturity matters. Specifically, a judge will give more weight to an older child's preference, such as a child over 14. Generally, a judge won't give much consideration to a child's wishes if the child is under 10. In one Utah family court case, an 11-year old boy stated a preference to live with his father, but the judge said that an 11-year old shouldn't have control over where he lives.
Judges will also look at the reasons a child prefers to live with one parent over the other. In one case, a father with custody of two boys moved them from their hometown and away from their school, friends, and other family members. The children wanted to live with their mother to be close to friends and family, and to continue going to the school they knew. The court found that these were valid reasons to want to live with their mother and gave the children's preferences significant weight in the custody decision.
On the other hand, if a child's reasons for wanting to live one parent are immature, for example, because one parent is more lax with discipline or gives them lavish gifts, the judge won't give the child's preference much weight.
Keep in mind that even if a child has a strong custodial preference, it won't be the controlling factor in a court's decision. A judge can always overrule a child's preference if it's in the child's best interest to live with the non-preferred parent.
Judges will also watch to see if parents have coached their children. In one case, a judge questioned the children and discovered that their mother had told them to lie about her boyfriend's overnight visits in their home. The mother's coaching was a major factor in the judge's decision to transfer custody to the father.
In Utah, children can't testify in court unless there are extenuating circumstances, and there's no other way to obtain their testimony. Instead, judges usually interview children in court chambers to determine their custodial preferences. Normally, the court will ask the parents for permission to interview a child, but parental consent isn't necessary if the judge decides that an interview is the only way to figure out the child's custodial desires.
Parents can't attend the in-chambers interview. The judge may or may not allow the parent's attorneys to be present. Often, a court reporter will record the interview.
Courts can determine a child's preference in other ways as well. In one case, the judge deciding custody considered letters written by two boys to their mom, stating that they wanted to live with her. Courts may also allow custody evaluators or mental health professionals to testify about what children have told them regarding their custodial preferences.
Life is full of changes, and after a few years your custody order may need an adjustment. Utah custody laws allow either parent to file a custody modification request if there's been a material change in circumstances affecting the child or parents or more than 3 years have passed since entry of the previous custody order. In either situation, the parent requesting a custody change must show that the modification would serve the child's best interests.
When considering whether a modification is appropriate, a judge will consider the same best interests factors as listed above. A judge will hold a court hearing to consider all the evidence. A child's needs—not a parent's wishes—will determine the outcome of your case. For example, a parent's desire to relocate for a new job might not be enough to justify a change in custody. However, a custodial parents' medical crisis might warrant switching custody to the other parent.
The interplay of numerous factors will determine the outcome of your custody case. If you still have questions after reading this article, you should seek out a local family law attorney for advice.