It is commonly misunderstood in North Carolina family law cases that there is a certain age in which a child can choose the parent with whom he or she wants to reside. In consultations, moms and dads will regularly tell me that they were holding out on their separation until their child was 12 because they heard that, at 12, little Johnny will be able to choose his home. As with many misconceptions about divorce and child custody, I am the bearer of unfortunate news when I share that North Carolina does not allow children (under 18) to choose what is in their best interests. When the decision is left to the Court, it is in the Court’s discretion and, though allowed, typically the Court’s preference is to not bring children into the courtroom.
Having Your Child’s Voice Heard
Do you disagree with this preference, and think it is necessary to have your child’s voice heard? And, if your child’s voice is heard in the courtroom, how can you discern his genuine requests and not just the coaching of the other parent? The Court’s job is ever so difficult but there are some things you may want to consider in your journey.
Coaches and Teachers: Children often spend many more hours in a day with school personnel and coaches than with parents and family. While school personnel is likely not to be able to repeat what the child says in the courtroom (as it could be considered “hearsay”), he can share how the child behaves. Have grades declined? How well is he handling the transition before, during or after separation? Is he more tired the mornings after he is with Mom? Is homework complete? Is he participating in practice? Has his sportsmanship declined, is he holding himself aloof from his teammates? If he is a toddler, has potty training gone awry? There are many unspoken signs that can be shared with the Court so as to help the Court make a decision based on the “best interests” standard.
Therapists: Don’t want to involve the school or the team? Consider enlisting the help of a therapist to help identify how the child is feeling. For young children, there is a fun way to explore feelings through “play therapy.” Regardless of age, make sure to choose the counselor wisely just as you would your attorney. Ask your attorney who would be a good selection given your child’s age and gender. There are therapists who spend the lion’s share of their practices working with a particular type of child, ie. adolescent males or teenage females. As we know, no two children are alike. Make sure the therapist knows that there is a possibility that he will need to share his findings with the Court so that the Court can render a decision. If you are concerned with coaching by one parent or the other, consider sharing your concerns with the therapist. A trained, experienced therapist may be able to help once he has gained the trust of your child.
Ultimately, if you and your soon-to-be-ex cannot determine what custody or parenting schedule works, then you are likely to find yourself in a courtroom giving the Court the opportunity to make the best decision for your child. As a parent, the thought can be overwhelming and you will look to rely on any resource to prove your point. But, if you are considering your child as the primary resource, then you may need to think again…as 12 is not the new 18.