Tim is twelve. His parents are getting a divorce, and while Tim is coping well with the changes in his life, he is concerned about the possibility of living with his mother. Tim has expressed a clear preference for staying with his father, who lives in the town where Tim goes to school. While Tim loves his mother and wants to see her as much as possible, he prefers not to stay with her every day. When will a child’s preference be considered during the divorce?

Legal and physical custody of Tim is at issue here. While the term physical custody refers to the child living or staying with one or both parents, the term legal custody denotes the parent’s ability to make lasting legal decisions on the child’s behalf. Physical custody refers to the child’s primary residence and the parent’s ability to make day-to-day decisions. Legal custody, on the other hand, refers to the parent’s involvement in “decisions regarding the child’s welfare in matters of education, medical care, emotional, moral and religious development.”[1]

In order to resolve issues of custody, the court will determine what is in the best interests of the child. The court does not look at the interests of the parents, the “rights” of the parents, the preferences of the parents, or even the relative morality or lifestyles of the parents—unless it affects the welfare and best interests of the child. In determining what is in the best interests of the child, the court considers many factors. One of those factors, in some cases, is the expressed preferences of the child.

In Massachusetts, the territory of children’s preferences as a consideration in custody disputes must be tread carefully. The concern, of course, lies in reliability: the courts are concerned that the expression of a child’s preference (particularly when the child is small) may be unreliable, based on clouded judgment, or perhaps even manipulated, whether by one of the parties or others present in the child’s life. It is not difficult to imagine that statements such as “Kids belong with their mothers,” or “Your father’s house is so much cooler than your mother’s” might work to sway the judgment of an impressionable child in expressing a preference for living with one parent over the other.

Typically, the Court will pay more attention to the child’s preferences in the case of older children, in context of the age and maturity of the child. In one case, the Court considered the preferences of a ten-year-old boy to live with his father in Germany;[2] in another, it considered the preferences of an eleven-year old to stay with his father.[3] It is important to note that the preferences of the child will not necessarily be the decisive factor, particularly if other factors indicate that it is not in the best interests of the child to order custody according to what the child prefers.

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[1] Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 s. 31

[2] Bak v. Bak, 24 Mass. App. Ct. 608 (1987).

[3] Custody of Vaughn, 422 Mass. 590 (1996).