During the divorce process, some of the most critical issues revolve around child custody and visitation. Typically, parents work together—usually with the assistance of a skilled Bloomington, IL, child custody lawyer—to establish a parenting plan before the divorce is finalized. In some cases, however, parents cannot agree on where the child will live most of the time or the other parent’s visitation rights.

Although there are several considerations weighed by the courts to determine a fair custody agreement in the child’s best interests, one of the most impactful occurs when a child expresses a preference regarding which parent they would rather live with. If your child’s wishes have been expressed, you are likely wondering how much weight their preferences have in family court and how the revelation may impact the eventual custody decision. This brief guide will serve to provide general information regarding the potential impact your child’s wishes may have on your Illinois child custody case.

Does an Illinois Judge Have to Honor Your Child’s Custody Wishes?

In Illinois, as in most states, family court judges must hear a child’s wishes regarding which parent they would like to live with (primary physical custody). After hearing the child’s wishes, the majority of judges will at the very least consider them when making a final child custody ruling. However, judges are not obligated to fulfill a child’s wishes simply because they have a preference.

Judges must exercise caution when a child shows parental preference because some parents tend to manipulate or influence children’s wishes to gain an advantage in court. The majority of judges, therapists, and caseworkers undergo specific training to identify signs of manipulation or coercion in children. As older children are less likely to be susceptible to undue influence by their parents, most family court judges assign more weight to parental preference as the child grows older.

How Old Does a Child Have to Be to Declare Parental Preference in Illinois?

There is no official age at which a child can decide where they want to live in Illinois because all children under the age of 18 are considered minors unable to make legal decisions for themselves. However, as those in many states, Illinois courts have established a “rule of thumb” that allows more weight to be applied to older children’s preferences. It is generally accepted that a judge will begin to consider a child’s preferences more heavily after they have reached the age of 14 and assign more importance to the child’s wishes each year until age 18.

However, it is important to note that age is not the only factor influencing how seriously a judge will consider a child’s parental preferences. The child’s maturity and the specific situation also play a large role in the decision. For example, although a very emotionally mature 12-year-old boy expressing a desire to stay at his preferred school and an immature 16-year-old girl expressing her wishes to live with the parent who chooses not to set a curfew or assign household chores are both expressing a parental preference, most judges would give more weight to the 12-year-old’s preferences. Overall, the courts will determine which living situation contributes to the best interests of the child.

Will Your Child Need to Testify Against the Other Parent?

Many parents who find that their children have a preference regarding which parent to live with worry about the potential negative impact of having to express their wishes. Fortunately, except for extreme situations, it is not usually necessary to have your child testify in open court. There are a few options to ensure your child’s wishes are heard:

  • A court-appointed official, such as a social worker, therapist, or guardian ad litem (an attorney representing the child), can meet with you and your child together and separately. The official will then relay your child’s wishes to the judge.
  • The judge may meet with your child via a private interview in the judge’s chambers. Each parent’s attorney and the court reporter will record the child’s wishes and can refer to them in open court.

Procure the Services of a Skilled Bloomington, IL, Family Law Attorney

No matter your child’s age, maturity, or eventual parental preferences, they deserve to make their wishes known to the judge. While all legal decisions must be made with consideration for the child’s best interests, a judge must hear your child’s wishes before making a final decision. For more information about child custody proceedings or to request an initial consultation, contact us online or call Stange Law Firm at (855) 055-0595.