Parents often want to know at what age a child can decide whom to live with. The answer is simply: according to the law, eighteen. However, dissolution of marriage statutes provide that the child’s wish as to where s/he will live is a factor to be considered by a court in making a custody decision. What the statute does not say is how much weight a court must give to this factor; and of course, this is just one of many factors that influence the judge.
In reality, older teens (ages 16 and 17) often “vote with their feet,” deciding where they want to live by spending time with one parent or the other as they wish. Courts are reluctant to intervene with children this age to order them to return to the parent that they don’t want to live with, but if a case can be made that the child’s decision is detrimental to his/her welfare, the court may very well try to act in the child’s best interest. In some cases, police will tell parents that after they are 17, they are no longer under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court and can’t be made to comply with a judgment. This is not completely accurate, as a child of 17 actually can be under the juvenile court’s power, but only if the parent or parents are charged with abuse or neglect. Those cases are rare however, unless the children are or have been in foster care.
The simple answer is that there are no easy answers to this question. A consultation with an attorney experienced in juvenile matters and family law can be helpful in determining what a parent can or cannot do when issues of custody arise.