The laws in every state dictate that in a custody dispute, when parents can't agree, the court has the absolute right to decide where a child will live until she reaches the age of majority. However, it can be difficult to force an older child to live in a home if she doesn't want to be there. It’s not unheard of for an adolescent to simply run away rather than live where a judge has told her she must. For this reason, most states will at least consider a teenager's wishes.
Most state laws require a judge to ascertain a child’s maturity before deciding to give her wishes any weight. According to the American Bar Association, only West Virginia and Georgia include a specific chronological age in their statutes for when a judge must accommodate the preference of the child. That age is 14. In all other states, the older a child is, the more likely a judge is to acquiesce to her preference. A judge might not honor a 14-year-old’s wishes, but will almost always accommodate a 17-year-old. An 18-year-old can usually make her own decision without court approval, even if she is still in high school, if her state’s age of majority is 18.
Other than in Georgia and West Virginia, judges will investigate a teenager's reasons for wanting to change custody before making a decision. This is commonly accomplished during a private conversation in the judge’s chambers, not in open court. If a judge suspects the teenager's wishes are not in her own best interest -- for example, if she wants to go live with her father because rules are virtually non-existent in his household, or because he has somehow bribed or influenced her into making this decision -- the court probably won’t honor her wishes. If a judge suspects undue influence, he might order the intervention of a mental health professional to uncover the true reasons behind the teenager’s request.
Even in Georgia and West Virginia, if the court determines that a parent is unfit, it does not have to award custody to that parent when a teenager requests it. If a teen’s reasons for wanting to live with her other parent are pure and logical, but that parent has a documented drug or alcohol problem or frequent brushes with the law, the judge does not have to transfer custody. This would not be in the best interests of the child.
Weight of the Teen’s Decision
When there is an existing custody order, and a teenager wants to change that order, her wishes are usually the focus of the court’s deliberations. However, when custody is being determined for the first time, such as when parents separate or divorce, states have different criteria for including a teen’s wishes in the decision. In most cases, her desires are only one factor in determining custody. In North Carolina, the judge may or may not even interview the child; it’s up to his discretion. According to the Oregon State Bar Association, judges in that state prefer not to take a child’s wishes into consideration when establishing an initial custody order, but they sometimes will.