Determining child custody arrangements is one of the most stressful and fraught aspects of any divorce. Judges are required to consider a wide range of variables in order to ensure that the child’s best interests are protected, and no single factor outweighs the rest.
Often, a child may express a wish to remain with one parent over another, or otherwise hold strong opinions as to how custody arrangements should be made. In these situations, do the child’s wishes have any influence on the judge’s decision?
In Tennessee, judges are required by law to hear and consider the preferences of children aged 12 or over in regards to custodial matters. In practice, however, the weight that the child’s wishes will carry depends strongly on their ability to present a mature and reasonable opinion to the court, and the preferences of older children will usually be given greater weight.
If a child’s preference is to reside with one parent so that they can continue to attend the same school, maintain friendships and keep up the pursuit of activities or interests, the judge may well take these factors into consideration when making their decision. However, if the child’s choice is influenced by bribery, pressure or coercion from one of their parents, it will be disregarded.
A child is not usually required to testify in court; judges will often speak with children in their chambers, privately, in order to ascertain their wishes without outside influence. Often, a guardian ad litem may be appointed to represent the child’s best interests; this person will conduct an investigation and report back to the court with their opinion on the factors involved.
While a child’s preferences and wishes are indeed taken into consideration by the court when making custody arrangements, they are part of a much larger body of factors that the judge must take into consideration. Above all else, the court’s role is to ensure that any arrangement prioritizes the best interests of the child.