Custody can be a tricky issue no matter what the child’s age. When you add a teenager into the mix, it can be even more difficult to navigate the correct procedures for custodial parents and non-custodial parents to follow. Teens often have strong opinions on which parent they prefer to live with, opinions that can change rather often or unexpectedly. The issue becomes even more clouded when a teen is close to age eighteen. Parents often wonder to what extent they should treat their teens like adults in making major decisions such as which parent to live with.
In my family law practice, I have encountered situations where a non-custodial parent wants to follow the wishes of a teenager and allow him or her to move into their home. For example, the question may be, “Can my sixteen-year-old daughter just move in with me? Even though the Custody Order gives my ex primary physical custody, isn’t she old enough to decide where she wants to live?”
I always caution parents in this situation. Do not allow your teenager to just move in with you on a whim or because he or she is upset with the other parent. The existing Custody Order is an enforceable legal document and non-compliance could result in contempt proceedings being brought against you. Regardless of the fact that the teen could be only months away from the age of majority, a Custody Order is a directive from the Court, and both parents are obligated to comply with it.
That said, the Pennsylvania Custody Act mandates that the Court determine the best interest of the child, including the “well-reasoned preference of the child, based on the child’s maturity and judgment.” The child’s own preference is a factor that is, by law, secondary to their best interest. That means that the outcome is not always what the child wants. However, for teenagers (those over the age of 12), preferences can weigh more heavily in the Court’s decision, depending on maturity level and other factors. My experience is that courts are reluctant to give a teenager carte blanche in choosing which parent they live with. In fact, I have heard Lancaster County judges say many times that this choice is “not up to a teenager.” Parents are the people who make that decision.
Ultimately, it is a parental decision, and if the parents do not come to an agreement about primary physical custody, then it is be up to the Court. When new circumstances arise where a parent may wish to reassess the current custody arrangement – relocation being a prime example, or changes in a child’s preference – it is best to consult with a family law attorney before taking any action.
Julie Miller is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Dickinson School of Law and practices in a variety of areas including Family Law.