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We had quite a reaction to the blog related to whether a child can choose which parent to live with upon the parents divorce in Ohio. Readers were surprised to learn that a child no longer had the ability to make such a choice, even if the child is 12 or 13 years old, and many were upset to learn this fact (evidently many were counting on this fact). Given the level of reaction, we thought that a few points of clarification were in order. While it is true that a child in Ohio no longer has the absolute right to choose which parent he or she would like to be deemed the residential and custodial parent, a child’s preferences can play a role in the Court’s ultimate decision on the matter.
Under current Ohio law, when a party requests (or upon the Court’s own motion) the minor child can be interviewed by the judge or magistrate in chambers (called an “in-camera” review) as to the child’s wishes and concerns related to custody matters. However, before the Court will take into account the child’s wishes or preferences regarding child custody, it must first determine whether the child has the maturity level to adequately express such feelings in a useful manner (what the statute calls “reasoning ability”).
Should the child have the requisite reasoning ability, the Court must then ask whether interviewing the child and asking him or her to express those wishes and concerns is actually in the best interest of the child, or whether asking the child to “choose” between parents would be detrimental to the child. In other words, although the Court is empowered to take into account the child’s preferences in determining custody matters, it will only do so if the child is mature enough to provide useful input and if asking the child to pick between parents would not be detrimental to the child’s well-being. So, in short, for those of you counting on the fact that your child wants to live with you as being the winning card against your ex, there is some benefit to that being the case, even if the law doesn’t allow the child to make the ultimate decision.
It is one of the most common myths that people maintain when it comes to child custody: Once a child reaches a certain age, that child can choose which parent to live with, right? Well, that is actually incorrect. However, this myth is based in history and actually grounded is truth. Under former Ohio law, once a child attained the age of 12 years old, that child had the power to choose which parent was to be deemed the residential parent and legal custodian of that child. However, under current Ohio law, minor children no longer have the ability to choose which parent they want to live with on a permanent basis. In other words, when the Court issues its final divorce decree which, among other things, allocates parental rights and responsibilities, it is not the child that determines which parent is to be the residential parent, even if that child is a teenager. Ohio law treats a 14 year old in the same manner as a 4 year old when it comes to determining which parent with be designated as the residential parent. And, like almost all issues involving minor children, the determination is guided by what is in the “best interest of the child”.
So, divorcing parents, remember that your child will not be choosing for or against you when it comes to custody issues. Rather, the Court will decide and you need to focus your energy on convincing the Court that it would be in the best interest of the child to live with you … do not work on convincing the child that he or she should choose you. Which, in truth, is not fair to the child anyway.