As a family law attorney, each day holds new and unique situations as clients bring their life circumstances to me. Over the next several articles, I will be featuring some common questions that I have answered throughout the years of my career. This is the first one.
Q: When do my children get to decide where they want to live? Their dad tells me they get to make that choice as soon as they turn 14. Is that true?
A: I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard this question; I would be an incredibly wealthy man (provided I used all of those many dollars wisely)! Let’s start with the statute that gives rise to the notion, children get to choose where they live, and then we can talk about some important realities.
Utah Code Annotated § 30-3-10(5) addresses the general rule that children do not testify in trials unless there is no other way to get the testimony. Subsection (b) allows the court to “take into consideration the child’s desires regarding future custody or parent-time schedules.” And here is the source of the belief that 14-year-olds get to choose: “The desires of a child 14 years of age or older shall be given added weight[.]” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-10(5)(b)(ii). If you stop reading the statute there, it sounds like your teenager gets to choose between parents. However, the next clause clarifies that a teenage child’s desire is “not the single controlling factor.” In other words, a court will consider what a child wants, but a child does not get to call the shots.
If we think about it, we generally do not allow our children to make big decisions. They do not get to choose whether to go to school or not. They do not get to vote. They do not get to enter into contracts. Teenagers should not be allowed to make the choice of where they live; otherwise, it will turn into a search for who gives them the best living situation. Where do they have the most freedom, where do they get to do what they want? I don’t want to imply that teenagers are evil or have ill intentions; they will simply use the situation to get the circumstances that feel the best. They do not have enough life experience to carefully weigh out and consider all the pros and cons.
The biggest concern for me comes from how this question usually arises. One parent is telling the children that they get to make the decision when they turn 14. This is so harmful to the children and the parenting relationship, particularly for the parent who is not telling the children this misleading information. These kinds of conversations put the children in the middle of ongoing divorce conflict by telling the children that they have to choose between one parent or the other. If this sort of manipulation is happening in your parenting relationship, look immediately for a good counselor or other professionals who can help your child navigate this emotional minefield. Do not just ignore this symptom of bigger potential problems. Not dealing with it can cause even greater issues in the future.