Do My Child’s Wishes Matter in a Custody Dispute?

This Week’s Blog by Andrew M. Eliot

  • In adjudicating custody and parenting time disputes, Courts are required to give consideration to a child’s wishes only in instances where a child is, “of sufficient age and capable of forming an intelligent preference.”
  • There is no fixed age at which a child’s wishes must be considered by a Court in rendering a custody determination.
  • Even if a child who is child determined to be of sufficient age and capable of forming an intelligent preference expresses such a preference regarding custody or parenting time, Courts are not bound to follow the child’s wishes. Rather, Courts have the discretion to determine that a child’s preference is not in his or her best interest.

Understandably, many parents who are facing (or are in the midst of) a custody dispute, wish to know what impact their child’s wishes or preferences will have with respect to physical custody arrangements (i.e., which parent a child will predominantly reside with, and when and how often a child will be with the other parent).  There are a several common misconceptions on this topic.  Perhaps most notably, many people incorrectly believe that a child’s preferences must be considered by a Court in a custody dispute, and/or that upon reaching a certain age their child will have the absolute right to determine his or her own custody arrangement.  Each of these notions is inaccurate.

Pursuant to the applicable Connecticut statute pertaining to custody determinations (C.G.S. §46b-56(c)), the only factor Courts must consider in rendering custody determinations is the “best interests of a child.” With respect to a child’s preferences, the statute provides only that a Court may consider the “informed preferences of a child,” in determining what is in a child’s best interest.  Notably, Courts have interpreted this portion of the statute to mean that a child’s preferences shall only be considered by a Court if a child is of sufficient age and is capable of forming an intelligent preference.  Whether a particular child meets this initial hurdle is a determination that is within the sound discretion of the Court, but is generally one that depends not only upon a particular child’s chronological age, but also upon the child’s maturity level and intellectual capacity, as assessed by the Court through whatever evidence a Court deems relevant.  Such evidence may include witness testimony from individuals such as a child’s parents, a Guardian Ad Litem if one has been appointed, and/or any Family Relations officer or Court appointed mental health professional who may have conducted a custody study or psychological evaluation of the child.  Such evidence might also include documentation relating to a child’s academic performance at school, such as a report card.  If a Court determines that a child does indeed meet this initial threshold, the Court must next identify what the child’s wishes are and, finally, determine how much weight the child’s preference should be afforded.

Notably, even where it is determined that it is appropriate to consider a child’s custody preferences, Courts still have the discretion to determine that the child’s expressed preference is not in the child’s best interest, and render custody orders that are contrary to the child’s wishes.  Additionally, parents should also be aware that Courts may be inclined to view the expressed wishes of a child with a degree of skepticism or distrust, given that a child caught up in a custody dispute may be likely to have conflicting feelings about custodial arrangements, may have preferences that are subject to change at any given moment, and/or are succumbing to pressure from one parent to express preferences in favor of that parent.

At Broder & Orland LLC, we have extensive experience handling complex and emotionally-charged custody disputes throughout Fairfield County and can help clients properly assess whether and to what extent a child’s wishes might be considered by the Court.