Perhaps the most common question I have been asked as a Wisconsin family law attorney is “at what age may a child decide with whom he or she will reside.” My answer has always been the same: One may choose where and with whom he or she will live at age 18.
There seems to be a strong rumor running through the public that at a certain age, most commonly alleged to be 14 years, a child may actually decide which parent he wants to reside with. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. When parents dispute the physical placement of a child, ultimately the court may be called upon to decide where and with whom that child will live and what periods of placement the child will spend with the other parent. The court does not make this decision in a vacuum. Rather, Sec. 767.41, Wis. Stats., governs decisions concerning custody and physical placement of children. Specifically, Sec. 767.41(5) requires the court to consider “all facts relevant to the best interests of the child.” Moreover, that statute requires the court to consider a list of specific factors stated in Sec. 767.41(5).
Among the specific factors the court must consider is “the wishes of the child.” However, this factor is not given any greater weight than the other factors; nor is it the controlling factor. In reality, it is one among 16 factors that the court must consider.
In practice we find that the wishes of the child are not seriously considered when the child is of a tender age. Furthermore, as important, if not more important than the age of the child, is the maturity level of a child. A 14 year old child may have reached a greater maturity level than a 16 year old child in some instances. Furthermore, the court will consider the circumstances and the reasons that a child may prefer to live with one parent over the other. It is not uncommon for a child to prefer to reside with a parent who practices a more relaxed disciplinary routine than the parent who insists upon a stricter regimen. Also, we find many cases where a child will prefer to live with the parent who has the X-Box, wide screen TV, and all the other “bells and whistles” that the other parent does not have. As one can see, it is both simplistic and inaccurate to state that a child may simply choose which parent he or she will live with.