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At What Age can a Child Make Decisions about their Custody?

Morris County NJ Child Custody LawyersOne of the most commonly asked questions of family lawyers is “At what age can a child of a divorced couple make their own decisions about visitation times and child custody rules?”.  Unfortunately, the law in New Jersey in this instance is extremely vague, and the answer changes on a case by case basis.  

There are many reasons for a child to wish to change a court-ordered custody agreement.  In some cases, they may have been denied visitation time with a particular parent because of a substance abuse problem or a history of criminal activity.  The child may wish to spend more time in a particular household because of its proximity to their friends and extracurricular activities.  Sometimes it stems from the natural developmental need to demonstrate independence and control over their own lives.  Or possibly they are just tired of moving around so much between houses, and wish to establish themselves in one location over another.

When will a Morris County NJ Court Speak to a Child about their Custody?

Whatever the case may be, as previously stated there is no clear New Jersey law governing when a child may make this decision for themselves.  Ultimately, the court is considered to be the agent of the child’s best interest until they reach the age of emancipation.  There is no legally predefined age of emancipation in New Jersey, rather it is a factor of economic and familial circumstances.  

However, the court may consider a child’s opinion on custody decisions before the age of emancipation.  This can happen when a parent asks the court to consider the child’s opinion in a custody dispute, or when a child specifically asks for a chance to change their visitation arrangement.  If the judge believes the child has reached an age and maturity level sufficient enough to consider their opinion, the judge will choose to hear the child’s testimony privately.

What Factors does the Court Consider?

Once the question of the child’s maturity level and ability to rationally express their desire for a move, a judge will move forward in hearing the child’s case privately.  When speaking with a child about their desire for a changed custody agreement, a judge will consider several factors.  First and foremost, they will consider the child’s best interest.  This includes changes in economic circumstances, their proximity to extended family and other concerned parties, and educational opportunities  The court also considers the potential effect on the child’s siblings.

Legal Ramifications of a Change

If the judge decides to move forward with a change in the existing visitation agreement, several things need to be taken into account.  If the move involves a relocation of 50 miles or more from the current residence, an official court order may be required.  Additionally, even if all parties involved agree to the change in custody (which isn’t always the case), the change must be recorded and submitted to the family court for ratification and approval.  This is in order to prevent manipulation of a child by one parent against another as well as parental kidnapping cases.

Contact an Experienced Morris County NJ Family Lawyer

Child custody and visitation rights are complex legal matters and it is important that you have the most experienced representation possible when it comes to the well-being of your child.  The attorneys at Townsend, Tomaio & Newmark will help you to navigate through the complexities of the legal process, assert your rights as a parent, and secure your child’s future.  If you are currently undergoing a divorce, or wish to modify your current agreement, please contact us today online or at our Morris County NJ offices today to receive a cost-free consultation.