One of the child custody issues we’re most frequently asked about is whether the court must consider a child’s custodial preference before making a custody ruling. Parents sometimes disagree on their child’s ideal custody arrangement, and the child might have strong feelings about it.
Let’s look at how the Maryland family law courts consider a child’s preferences regarding living arrangements.
Does a Child’s Preference Affect Child Custody in Maryland?
Ultimately, it’s the court’s responsibility to allocate parental responsibilities, including living arrangements, in accordance with the child’s “best interests.” In most cases, how strongly the court considers a child’s wishes depends on the child’s age.
Maryland is one of many states that allow a child to weigh in with their preferences at 16 years of age. It also allows children 16 years and older to petition the court for a change of custody if they’re not happy with the arrangement ordered in the initial decree.
Even when a child states their preferences about which parent they would like to live with, the court must consider other best interest factors. Further, a child who petitions for a modification in living arrangements must show the court the change is essential to their emotional and physical well-being.
That said, unless the other parent can show such a decision would not be in the child’s best interests, family law judges issuing custody orders tend to honor the wishes of a minor child who’s at least 16 years old.
What Criteria Does a Judge Consider?
Maryland doesn’t set out specific criteria judges must consider when a child has a custody preference. However, factors judges generally consider are:
- Why does the child want to change residences?
- Are the child’s reasons valid?
- Are the reasons significant factors or issues in the child’s life, such as schooling or specialized medical care?
The court will also consider whether the child shows the social maturity and emotional and intellectual development necessary to make such an important decision for themselves. It will also look for any evidence the child’s been pressured or manipulated into requesting the decision by one of the parents.
Other Factors Considered in Determining the Best Interest of the Child in Maryland
Beyond a child’s preference, Maryland family law courts typically consider these factors when determining a child’s best interest:
- Any agreements between the parties
- Willingness of the parties to share custody
- Parents’ capacity to communicate and reach shared decisions that affect the child’s welfare
- Geographic proximity of the parents’ homes
- Potential disruption of the child’s school and social lives
- Any other considerations the court deems relevant to the child’s best interest
What Happens If a Child Is Under 16 Years Old?
Though it’s rare, some courts will consider the preferences of children much younger than 16. Those aged 10 and older are also generally considered entitled to have their opinions heard. Many judges, however, prefer to hear from:
- A best-interest attorney who’s appointed specifically to represent the child
- A private custody evaluator
- An appointed court custody evaluator.
The preferences would then be presented to the court in the form of an opinion or expert report.
Whether a child testifies in an open courtroom or the judge’s private chambers is entirely within a judge’s discretion. For children under 16, the judge will consider the child’s maturity and whether they can tell the truth from fiction before deciding if they can be heard.
Consult an Experienced Maryland Family Law Firm
If you require assistance from a child custody lawyer in Maryland, Andalman & Flynn family law attorneys can provide the reliable, compassionate legal representation you need.