As much as everyone would like custody arrangements between non-married parents to be easy and amicable, this isn’t always—or even often—the case. Especially if parents have been separated for many years over the course of a child’s life, custody arrangements often change. This could be due to moves, education decisions, new relationships on the part of the parent, or simply the growth of the child and new preferences overall. Having a Child Custody Attorney on your side can help your family—and your child—go through the process of weighing in on their living arrangements with a great deal more clarity and ease.
In Washington state, specifically, a child can begin to voice their opinion on custody arrangements as early as they feel comfortable speaking in court, but at the age of 12, a judge will typically give their decision more weight. There are specifics to this decision, though, and legal proceedings that must be undertaken.
When Parents Are at Conflict in Washington
Mediation happens when two parents cannot come to an agreed-upon arrangement on their own, and they need the help of a court-appointed lawyer to figure out a custody situation that they can both be happy with. Sometimes, even mediation doesn’t work and then the parents will have to go to trial and plead their individual cases to a judge with the help of a Child Custody Attorney.
The judge is an impartial overseer to each case, and they will not necessarily side with either the mother or the father, but instead will make their parenting plan with the best interest of the child in mind. This parenting plan details where the child lives as well as who has the right to make educational, medical, and other decisions for the child. These are called physical and legal custody, respectively. Sometimes, one parent has full physical and legal custody, sometimes both share custody equally, and sometimes one has full physical custody but both parents share legal custody. It all depends on the situation as a whole.
To make the decision, the judge takes many factors into consideration. These include, but are not limited to:
- How strong the child’s relationship is with each parent
- The child’s specific needs (developmental, educational, physical, medical, etc.)
- Each parent’s ability and/or desire to care for those needs
- The physical, mental, and emotional health of both parents
- The child’s relationships with any siblings and/or extended family members who are physically present or close to each parent
- The child’s ties to the community, their school, and their home
- Employment schedules and responsibilities of each parent
- The parents’ wishes regarding arrangements
- The child’s wishes regarding arrangements, with respect to the child’s age and maturity level
There are no black and white guidelines concerning how a judge must rule and why, but in Washington, the courts are encouraged to put the majority of the weight on the child’s own requests on where they would like to live and for how long out of the year. Sometimes the child’s wishes are just not feasible, especially when the parents’ careers and geographical proximity to each other make it difficult, but the judge does everything in their power to make sure that the best interests of the child and the child’s wishes are carried out as much as possible.
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The Child’s Own Interests
Since maturity and age are not necessarily connected, there isn’t a set age in Washington at which a judge can let a child make their own decision on whom they want to live with and for how long. However, if the judge (and the parents) deem that the child is mature enough to weigh in on this decision, they will take those choices into high consideration. Along the lines of maturity, then, usually the older the child is the more likely it is that a judge will give their opinion more weight. Usually, once a child turns 12 there is less question as to whether or not they are mature enough to decide and from 12 on their desires are given the majority of the decision-making power.
The reason for this is that the older a child is, the more likely it is that they can view their entire situation as a whole and make decisions that are long-term and not based on emotions in the moment or on superficial elements. Younger children are also more likely to be swayed by emotional manipulation or bribes from parents (e.g., fun snacks or games at one house, promises for trips and adventures, one parent who is the “good cop” as opposed to the “bad cop,” etc.), while older children can see these things for what they truly are.
Usually, Washington family courts don’t have the child testify to their wishes inside a courtroom. Even if a child is mature enough to not allow themselves to be manipulated by one or both parents, speaking out in front of a courtroom full of people while both parents are present (especially if they want to please both, which might be impossible) is often too much for any child or teenager to handle. Thus, the courts most often appoint a mental health professional to both assess and interview the child, and then a representative (the guardian ad litem, who has also interviewed the child) brings the child’s wishes to court.
This report is brought to the court, but just as with the child’s wishes, it is not one-hundred percent guaranteed to be exactly what the judge will decide in the end. Both sets of attorneys for the parents also have the right to cross-examine the mental health professional’s and the custody evaluator’s reports regarding what the child said (confidentiality does not apply in these cases).
The judge can, if appropriate, ask to interview the child in court chambers. Usually, this only happens with older children, but it still happens privately without the parents watching or listening. There is always a court reporter present, though, so that an official record can be put into the family case file. If attorneys are not allowed to be present, then they must receive a copy of the recorded interview.
When Can a Child Refuse to See a Parent in Washington?
Unfortunately, in many divorces, separations, or in families who have parents living apart, the relationship between the child and one particular parent becomes quite strained. This may be due to a variety of factors. Perhaps one parent is emotionally unstable or disciplines the child in a way that is unfair, unkind, and/or traumatic, bordering on abuse. Perhaps there have been conflicts between the parents that the child has witnessed that have colored their view of a parent in a negative way. Maybe a parent has chosen to leave the family for a new partner, and the child resents this relationship, especially if it encourages their mother or father to act in ways that are not characteristic of the parent she “used” to know and love. Whatever it may be, eventually there comes a time when many children say that they no longer want to see one parent.
Custody arrangements are in place (but can be altered if the situation warrants it) until the child either turns 18 or is legally emancipated. Visitation (what people often think of as “every other weekend and holidays”) is for the benefit of the child, not the parents. So, there isn’t a set age at which the child can deny visitation (because the courts believe that it is good for the child to see both parents, even if that visitation is difficult). If the presiding parent prevents the other from seeing the child, the presiding parent can be held in contempt of court.
Situations are always unique, though, and judges realize this. For example, it is easier—physically, not necessarily emotionally—to leave a crying, upset toddler with their father for the weekend than to force a sullen, uncooperative teenager to unlock their bedroom door and get in the car to go see their dad. Washington courts are less likely to fine or sanction a parent of an older child who refuses to go rather than a younger child. A judge might often seek to observe visitations, though, to determine why a child at any age is so upset about these visits.
The Judge Has the Final Say
Just because a child is mature and voices their preferences, does not mean that their wishes are the end-all and be-all of the custody arrangement. For example, a child may wish to live with their father full-time and only see the mother on holidays and vacations, but this simply wouldn’t work out for the father’s deployment schedule with the military. Or, if a child says that they want to live with the mother, maturely stating that they wish to help care for the mother as she might not do well emotionally without her child there, the judge might decide that this is too much responsibility for a young child to hold and give partial physical custody to both parents. However, if both parents are fit and willing to share custody, the child’s decision might then rest as the deciding factor.
Judges are carefully trained to watch for manipulation or improper influence, as previously discussed. If a judge sees evidence of this type of behavior, they will not take the child’s decision into account because they know that it isn’t truly based on mature, responsible choices from any of the parties.
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In Washington, there is no set age at which a child can make the final decision on who they would like to live with, or whether or not they want to see one parent or the other. However, the older they are and the more maturity they display—usually at or after the age of 12—the more likely it is that a judge will take their wishes into consideration. If you need a good family law attorney to make sure your family and your child end up in the best place for them, Aberdeen Law Firm in Bellevue is available to help.