She is 14 and has expressed a desire for over a year now to leave her mother & stepfather's house and live with me (stepmom) and her father. We all used to live in the same town and time between houses was evenly split. About 6 years ago we moved about 1.5 hours away (due to work) and now only see her every other weekend and half of the summer. A year ago she stated that she would like to move in with us for high school. As you can imagine, that went over like a lead balloon with her mother. My question is how much of a say should she (the child) get in this situation?
Both families live in Washington State.
Family Law Attorney
Although the written laws vary from state to state, the overriding public policy in all states is that when a court is faced with a custody dispute between parents, the "best interests of the child" must be given top consideration. Sometimes, for a court to determine what is in the child's best interests it is necessary to ask for the child's input. Each court/judge may decide how much weight to give the child's stated wishes--usually, the older the child, the more weight given. To further reduce the predictability in these matters, every case is determined upon the unique facts and circumstances of the family. As such, your local attorneys are in the best position to tell you how the courts in your area are most likely to view your particular situation. I suggest you consult with one as soon as possible. Attorneys in your area may be easily found by searching among the profiles here on Avvo. Good luck!
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Child Custody Lawyer
The age that she gets to chose is 18. You do not state whether you have a parenting plan. Assuming that you do - it is very difficult to effectuate a custody swap. Yes, the child's stated desire is taken into consideration. No, the child's stated desire does not mean it will happen. The statue that probably applies to your situation is 26.09.260. You can review it at www.legalwa.org. You can find a packet for modification of a parenting plan at http://washingtonlawhelp.com/WA/index.cfm.
You should meet with an attorney and discuss your case in detail.
Family Law Attorney
Although a 14 year old does not have an absolute "right" to say which parent they want to live with, I've seen quite a few cases where a child of that age was able to go live with the other parent when they strongly wished to. Many different things could be going on and it may be helpful for her to go to a counselor agreed to by both parents to discuss her feelings and what can make things better for her. As you know, that is a very tough age for girls. I encourage all parents/step-parents to help her express what she is really feeling and to support the role of each parent in having a teenaged girl. Best wishes to all of you. Your husband does need to consult with a good family law attorney if he wants to move forward in court about this.
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Divorce / Separation Lawyer
In Washington, the child does not have a legal right to determine with which parent she lives until the age of majority, that being 18 years old. I assume that there is a parenting plan in place already, and that will be the legally controlling document until that age. There can be legally permitted reasons to modify a parenting plan, such as when a move to a distant city occurs, but you did not indicate whether this had already been pursued. Even so, in the absence of significant and actual safety issues or other issues with the child's develpoment directly caused by living with the mother, it is unlikely that the court would agree to make a change to which parent is the primary residential parent. And if there are such possible issues, a guardian ad litem (GAL) would likely be needed during the modification action. Sometimes the parents can work things out for the benefit of the child, but there is no legal obligation for the mother to cooperate and give more time to the father (and you, as the step-mother).