One of the more common misconceptions that we encounter in family law is the myth that once minor children reach a certain age in Florida, they can simply decide for themselves who to live with and the courts will defer to that preference. The reality is that it is much more complicated than that, as we discuss in more detail below. Quite simply though, children do not get to make their own time-sharing (formerly known as custody) determinations.
When the parents cannot decide on a time-sharing (custody) arrangement with their children, the Court must step in and decide for them. After hearing evidence from both parents, the Court will create a parenting plan which is based on what is in the children’s best interests. The parenting plan is a comprehensive document, which includes a time-sharing schedule.
The law instructs the courts to consider 20 factors in crafting this parenting plan (see section 61.13(3), Florida Statutes). These factors include, but are not limited to:
• each parent’s willingness to honor the time-sharing schedule and to be reasonable when change is required;
• how much parental responsibility would be delegated to third parties;
• each parent’s demonstrated ability to act on the best interests of the child instead of their own interests;
• whether it is in the child’s best interest to maintain continuity with the current living arrangement;
• how much time would be spent traveling in order to effectuate the parenting plan;
• the moral fitness of the parents;
• each parent’s physical and mental health;
• each parent’s demonstrated ability to keep the other parent informed of issues related to the child;
• each parent’s demonstrated ability to stick to a routine for the minor child;
• evidence of child abuse and/or domestic violence;
• evidence of substance abuse.
• “Any other factor that is relevant to the determination of a specific parenting plan, including the time-sharing schedule.”
In addition to these, and other factors, the courts are also instructed to consider “The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference.” So, what does this mean and when will the courts actually consider a child’s preference in crafting a parenting plan?
First, the courts are provided an incredible amount of discretion when determining whether or not to consider the preferences of a child in a time-sharing (custody) dispute. The statute does not simply instruct the courts to consider the child’s preference, but requires the preference to be “reasonable” and also only be considered after the court determines that the child has the maturity to express a preference.
Second, there is no specified age in Florida at which the courts will consider a child’s preference. The court will instead decide this based upon the specific circumstances of each case. The older a child is, the more likely the court will consider his or her opinion, but there is still no magic age at which the courts must consider this.
Third, the courts often have strong and justified concerns with eliciting a child’s time-sharing (custody) preferences. The reality is that children’s preferences can be influenced and even manipulated by a parent or be based on things like which parent is the disciplinarian. When a judge does agree to hear a child testify on this matter, it often occurs in chambers as opposed to open court. However, in practice, most judges do not want to hear from the child directly as they do not want to put the child in the position of “choosing” one parent over the other. A better option is to obtain a child’s preferences via the testimony of a guardian ad litem. Additionally, a child therapist is sometimes used to determine a child’s preference.
In sum, most of the time, the courts will not consider the child’s preference in making time-sharing (custody) determinations. If they do, it will be based on the individual circumstances of the case and not on any specific age at which a child will be permitted to make his or her own time-sharing decision.