Article by Aleksandra Kocelko, Esq.
Parents beginning the custody process often ask how the children may be involved. Attorneys are often asked at what age a child can determine where they live. Attorneys also run into issues where parents struggle to get a child to comply with a custody schedule. Maybe there are issues with the other parent and the child simply does not want to go. It is important to understand the laws and procedures regarding kids and the custody process.
Almost everyone has heard the rumor that when a child is 14, 15, or 16, they can finally tell the judge where they want to live. In reality, it does not work quite like that. Pennsylvania law mandates that judges consider 16 factors when making any custody decision. One of those 16 factors is the child’s preference. While the older the child is courts generally give more weight to this factor, there is no set age where the preference would act as a determinative factor. In fact, the court is much more concerned with why a child has a specific preference, rather than how old they are. For example, if the court has a 17-year-old who wants to live with dad because he lets the child eat pizza and play video games all night; and a 12-year-old who wants to live with dad because dad helps with homework, coaches the soccer team, and is a better listener, the court is apt to give more weight to the 12-year-old’s wishes. Keep this in mind and never promise a child that if they tell the judge what they want, they will get their way.
Some parents also struggle with children who do not want to comply with a custody schedule. Maybe the parties have gone to trial, the child has spoken with the judge and an order has been entered where they spend every other weekend with mom. Perhaps that same child does not have a great relationship with mom and refuses to go on the visitation, what is dad supposed to do? Technically, a court order mandates each party’s actions, and a violation of that order can result in a finding of contempt. Practically speaking, the court will usually look at the circumstances of each case. First, they will look at the age of a child. If a toddler is refusing to go, the court will usually expect dad to pick the child up, put them in the car, and get the child to mom. If circumstances involve a teenager who might outweigh mom and dad, the court is mindful of limitations. A court will also look at what reassurance dad provided. If he was actively encouraging the child to go with mom, talking about a fun activity mom might have planned, etc. this will go a long way. Conversely, if dad is telling the child that they do not really have to go or suggesting that the child do what they want, this will make it more likely a court will find dad in contempt.
Understanding a child’s rights and responsibilities throughout the custody process is important. Once you properly educate your children on what to expect and what is expected of them, you can better navigate this difficult time.