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At What Age Can a Child Decide Where to Live?

Minor children do not get to control where they live, or who they live with. It does not matter how mature your twelve-year-old may be, if your five-year old throws a tantrum during every parenting exchange, or if your seventeen-year-old already has his or her bags packed and has one foot out the door; they are still children. Minor children do not get to make parental decisions. You must follow the court ordered custody and parenting schedule, regardless of how much the child dislikes it. Now a parent has the right to seek a Modification of the custody orders in Court if the current schedule does not work for the parents and the child, but a child cannot make the decision to change the Court’s orders.

A very common question regarding a child’s decision-making authority, is when can a child move out of the parents’ home; the answer is a simple one, they can’t. An adult can move out of his or her parent's home, a child cannot. Until a child reaches eighteen, or becomes legally emancipated, then he or she is subject to his or her parent’s, or guardian’s authority. There are a few circumstances in which a child can become legally emancipated; if a child marries, joins the military, or becomes self-supporting, they can petition the court to be considered emancipated. Once emancipated, the now legal adult, may move about as he or she wishes; but not before.

It’s a popular misconception to assume that once a child has reached the age of fourteen, he or she can decide where to live or when to visit with a parent; this is untrue. There are probate laws, that state a child fourteen years old and older must consent to an adoption or the appointment of a guardian, in addition to the other consenting parties. But, those are the only times a minor child has a say in his or her custodian or residence. In family court, a child’s wishes may be considered by the Court, but will not be a deciding factor in whether or not to change the Court’s orders.

It would be unwise to allow children to make their own custodial choices for a number of developmental reasons. And to be entirely fair, the law was not aware of human neurological development at the time that these laws were made, so legal adulthood does not exactly match mental and biological adulthood. In 1971, legal adulthood was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen by allowing eighteen-year olds to vote as full citizens. However, the human brain is not fully formed until an individual is approximately twenty-four. Therefore, the law actually granted adulthood to people who are not mentally prepared for it. If young adults aren't mentally ready for adult decision-making, then minors are certainly not ready to make their own important life decisions.

My mother, now retired, was an elementary teacher; when I was twelve she attended a conference in which she learned that the brain is not completely formed during childhood. I will never forget the day my mother gleefully informed me I had a hole in my head, the size of a quarter, deep in my prefrontal cortex. After I responded, in complete outrage, that I did not have a hole in my head; she reassured me, in a tone I still think was far too happy, that it was alright, everyone my age had a hole in their heads, and it was a normal part of neuro-development.

During childhood, all human brains have a hole in their prefrontal cortex, the section of the brain that determines higher-order, and critical thinking skills; specifically, this hole is situated where adults process long-term consequences. This part of the brain does not begin to grow in until late adolescence, generally ages sixteen-eighteen, and does not finish growing until around ages twenty-three to twenty-five. Therefore, for the vast majority of one’s legal childhood, it is physically impossible for even the brightest and most mature children to truly understand the realistic, long-term consequences of their actions. Consequences like: deciding where to live, or what effect certain people, or the lack thereof, will have on their life. I’d hazard a guess that most adults would agree, their thinking capabilities after the age of twenty-four, are worlds apart from their thought processes at age sixteen. Even the most thoughtful child, will not compare in critical-thinking skills to his or herself as a fully developed adult. After my mother's exposition on brain development, for the rest of my adolescence, I had a thorough understanding that I needed to trust the discretion trusted adults in my life to help me make long term decisions, because I could not clearly see the long-term consequences myself. That is not to say that the adults in my life were always right, or that I was always wrong; but being aware of my natural, age-related, neurological shortcomings, taught me to carefully consider my life choices as I moved forward.

Lawmakers were unaware of these facts of neurological development at the time they made the laws regarding parental decision making. You could even say they got lucky, in granting adulthood during the age in which the brain is at least preparing for its final stage of development, instead of at much less developed stage of mental maturity. Whether luck or foresight, lawmakers wisely recognized long ago, that children, are children; parents are considered to be a child’s natural advocates, and generally, the law leaves decision making authority to them. Regardless of a child’s wishes, the general legal presumption is that a child should not, and cannot, be responsible for parental decisions. Is this presumption perfect? No, far too many children live in homes where they are neglected or abused in one way or another. Throughout history, children have had to make very adult decisions for themselves, either because they were abandoned or the adults in their lives were selfish and incompetent. There are remedies for those children, when a parent consistently fails to make parenting decisions based upon a child’s best interests, the law can step in and assume the parental decision-making role; or grant the decision- making authority to someone else.

It is very important to notify the Court in some way if a child is being harmed by the current custodial orders. If a child has a highly contentious relationship with one parent; the other parent can petition the court for sole custody and become the only decision maker regarding the child. If both parents fail in their duty to act on the child’s best interest, a third party can petition the Court for guardianship; or a financially self-supporting minor may petition the Court for emancipation. But absent those Court orders, a child’s decision to move out of the home, or to cease visitation with a particular parent; must wait until he or she reaches legal adulthood. Prior to age eighteen; a minor child’s wishes regarding where he or she lives, are just that, wishes.

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