During divorce proceedings where children are involved, the Family Law Act prescribes that the child or children have the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with both parents. This can have a different meaning for different families, depending on a range of circumstances.
Even in circumstances where separated parents might be able to agree on parenting arrangements, both need to consider whether their proposal is in the best interests of their child or children. For example, changing residence too often can be upsetting for children and a solution is larger block periods of time.
One of the questions that often gets raised by parents, is to what age can a child or children have input into where they spend their time.
When courts deal with these matters, there is not an exact age at which a child’s wishes are given significant weight.
The courts don’t necessarily look at the exact age of a child but a range of factors, including:
- The maturity of the child, as this can vary significantly;
- His or her understanding of the situation and the gravity of their decision; and
- whether the child been influenced by one of the parents.
Usually, this assessment is carried out by a psychologist or a trained family consultant, who spends considerable time speaking with and assessing the child.
Courts are hesitant to place the burden of parenting arrangements on the children, as their decision-making is often hindered by the fear of hurting one or both of his or her parents. Asking or allowing children to choose where they live can take a huge emotional toll on them. As such, a child’s wishes are one of many factors that a court takes into consideration when deciding where the children will live, and how much time they will spend with their other parent.
Having said that, the older a child gets, the more weight is given to their wishes. It is very rare (and difficult) for older children to be forced to spend time with a parent that they flat out refuse to see.
If you and your ex-partner are in the process of making parenting arrangements for your children, take their wishes on board (particularly if they are older), but know that there are many other factors to take into consideration to ensure that the arrangements you come up with are in their best interests.
For matters where the parents can work well together and genuinely want what is in their child/children’s best interest, it can be very helpful to seek the advice of a child phycologist or family report writer. Another option is to go through the process of a child inclusive mediation, where together with a family report writer the family can work out what is true, in their child/children’s best interest.
Once parents have come to an agreement on how their child/children spend time, we recommend that the arrangement is finalised in Consent Orders that are filed with the Family Court. This gives the parents and the children, certainty moving into the future.