At What Age Can A Child Choose Which Parent To Live With?

emily gordon brown
Emily Gordon BrownLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 13th May 2024

When parents split up, a big question is where their children will live. If a child is very young, parents usually decide together or, in more extreme circumstances, ask a judge to help with a court order, known as a child arrangements order.

But with older kids, things can get tricky. Depending on their age, they might have strong opinions about where they want to live, making parents wonder how much say they have and when they can legally choose which parent they want to live with.

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In this article, we'll dig into this question, looking at what factors affect it, like how old the child is, how mature they are, what the law says, and how the courts decide on child arrangements.

At what age can a child choose which parent to live with?

By law, a child can choose where they live and who they want to live with when they are 16. Or, if a child arrangements order is already in place when they are 17 or 18.

Before then, those with parental responsibility have the final say on child arrangements. However, they should consider their children's wishes, especially if they're teenagers, as mutual agreements between families tend to work best in the long run.

In the family court, the weight given to the child's preferences depends on their age, with older children generally having more say, especially if they're 16 or older.

How do the courts decide where a child will live?

The Family Court makes decisions on child arrangements. To do this, they listen to both parents and decide what's best for their child considering where the child will be the safest and happiest.

Therefore, if a child expresses a strong desire to live with one parent over the other, depending on their age and other factors, the court will account for this when making a decision.

The most important thing in these decisions is what's best for the child, even if parents disagree.

What factors are considered when a court decides who a child lives with?

When deciding where a child should live, the court looks at:

  • How old the child is and their understanding of the situation.

  • Whether the child is mature enough to have a say in where they live.

  • What the child wants and how they feel about the situation.

  • What's best for the child's health and happiness.

  • The parent's ability to take care of the child's needs.

  • How the decision will affect the child's life.

In child arrangements, children have the right to have their views heard on who they want to live with. The Gillick Competence principle says that if a child is mature enough to understand what is happening, their views should be taken seriously. This is especially important in cases involving older children.

That being said, at the end of the day it is down to those with parental responsibility or the court to decide child arrangements for those under 16, or in some cases 18.

Age-specific guidelines for child custody decisions

When deciding where a child should live, there are different guidelines depending on their age.

Age

Guidelines

Under 12

The court usually considers what's best for their day-to-day care and routine, focusing on stability and consistency.

12-16

The court pays more attention to their wishes and feelings taking into account what the child wants and trying to involve them in the decision-making process.

16+

The court often gives more weight to the opinion of older teenagers balancing their maturity and ability to make decisions about their own life.

How to talk to your child about who they want to live with

When communicating with your children about who they want to live with and how it will work, you should be honest and open, using age-appropriate language and explanations.

It's super important to reassure them as far as possible that they are loved and that both of you will be there for them no matter what. You should also listen to their thoughts and feelings without judgement. Things can often escalate, particularly with older children, if they don't feel like they are being heard.

While it can be hard depending on the circumstances, you and your ex-partner should agree to keep communication between each other respectful and focus on your child's needs. In particular, you should avoid speaking negatively about the other parent in front of your children, or you may be accused of parental alienation.

Resources and support services for parents

Arranging care for children after a separation can pose significant challenges, depending on the circumstances. If reaching an agreement is proving difficult, family mediation provides a constructive space for discussion and negotiation. In certain cases, children can also participate in this process.

Parents are encouraged to pursue mediation by having to attend a MIAM before being able to apply for a court order, provided they are not exempt because of domestic abuse, for example.

Seeking advice from a family law solicitor specialising in child arrangement cases can offer valuable guidance and facilitate a smoother transition.

Additionally, for emotional support, consider joining support groups or accessing counseling services, which can greatly benefit parents and children during such challenging times.

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