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When Can a Child’s Preferences Determine Custody?

In child custody cases, New Jersey family court judges have a duty to focus on what is in the best interests of the children. To inform their custody decisions, judges consider multiple factors, including the preferences of children who are of sufficient age and capacity. Depending on the circumstances, those preferences can be highly persuasive in the outcome of the proceeding.

Courts do not rely on a specific age as a decisive factor. Instead, they employ a case-by-case approach, considering the child’s level of maturity, understanding and ability to articulate their preferences and concerns. A court evaluates whether the child possesses the cognitive ability to make informed decisions regarding their living arrangements and whether they can comprehend the potential consequences of their choices. When a child is under eight years of age, the presumption is that they are not of sufficient age and capacity. As a child goes from ages eight through 17, the court gives their preferences progressively more weight.

The court also attempts to learn the reasons behind the child’s preferences, assessing whether the preference is rooted in a healthy relationship, emotional bond or specific need that would be better met by one parent or the other. The court aims to uphold the child’s best interests and ensure their preference aligns with their well-being and welfare.

Even when a court determines a child to be of sufficient age and capacity to make an informed decision, the child’s preference is just one of 14 statutory factors that will guide the judge’s decision on custody. Among the factors judges must consider are the following:

  • The parents’ ability to agree, cooperate and communicate
  • The parents’ willingness to accept custody
  • The safety of all parties
  • Stability of the home environment
  • Needs of the child
  • Educational opportunities
  • The geographic location of the parents
  • Employment responsibilities

However, a child’s preferences — particularly when the child is in his or her mid-teens — will carry substantial weight in a custody determination. Courts view a child’s expressed wishes as a valuable insight into their happiness and well-being. If you are going through a New Jersey divorce that presents child custody issues, you need an experienced attorney to deal with this important aspect of the case.

At the Law Offices of Kisha M. Hebbon, LLC in Somerset, New Jersey, we represent clients in child custody proceedings with compassion and understanding. Call us today at 732-873-6464 or contact us online to schedule a free initial consultation.

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