In California, child custody and visitation arrangements are decided by a family court judge. In the decision process, the child’s preference to spend more time with one parent or the other can be given considerable weight depending on his or her age and maturity level. While the courts normally try to keep children out of parental disputes, a child may be allowed to express his or her wishes to a state official or even testify in open court.

Under the California Family Code, a court is permitted to consider the parenting and living preferences of a child who is of sufficient age and capacity to form an intelligent opinion. The family court judge must first determine that the best interests of the child are served by considering the child’s preferences. Children aged 14 and above are generally allowed to express their opinions regarding custody and visitation. This is because children in their mid-teens are usually capable of developing reasonable preferences and expressing them. But even a child under age 14 may have their preferences heard in certain circumstances.

The judge can get the child’s input in a variety of ways. The judge can direct an appointed attorney, counselor or evaluator to interview the child and report back to the court. Also a judge may allow the child to testify in court. The questioning of the child must be directed and controlled by the judge.

Even if the child’s preferences are allowed into evidence, they do not control the outcome of the custody and visitation decision. The court must consider a number of other factors, including the child’s maturity level, the fitness of each parent and any apparent undue parental influence on the child’s expressed preferences. Children, especially teenagers, are not usually informed, rational decision makers. A child might choose the “fun” parent over the other who happens to be more of a disciplinarian. Some parents try to bribe children with promises of gifts to influence their choice. More than a few parents tell the children half-truths or lies that make the other parent appear to be bad. Family court judges have wide discretion as to the weight to be given to children’s testimony and to other relevant evidence.

Favaro, Lavezzo, Gill, Caretti & Heppell, PC is a multi-practice California law firm with offices in Fairfield and Vallejo. We provide family legal services throughout the North Bay area. If you have a child custody matter to resolve, contact us online or call 707-674-6057 for a consultation.