Teenagers are often portrayed as difficult and defiant, but any parent of a teen knows that they are also a source of great joy. Parents of teens are just as concerned about custody orders as parents of younger children. However, no matter what the court decides, following a custody order can be challenging when your child is a teenager.
How Custody of Teens is Determined
Custody of teenagers is determined in the same way as for children of any age in New York. The court determines what is in the child’s best interests.
There are a variety of factors the court considers in making this determination, including:
- Alcohol or substance abuse by the parents
- Domestic violence or abuse in the home
- Each parent’s ability to cooperate with the other parent
- The child’s special needs (if any)
- The educational opportunities each parent can provide
- The financial situation of both parents
- The home environment of each parent
- The parenting skills and parenting history of each parent
- The parents’ schedules
- The physical and mental health of the child and parents
- Where the child currently lives
- Where the child’s siblings live (if any)
The Child’s Preference
The older the child, the more weight their preference is given. There is no stated age in New York at which the court must listen to the children’s preference. Instead, it is up to the judge to consider that individual child, their age, their maturity, and their ability to understand the situation and the consequences. The court is never required to do what the child asks, even if they are 17 years old. But the older the child, the more weight the court is likely to give their opinion. A five-year-old’s opinion will not have much if any influence. A ten-year-old will be given some consideration, and a teenager is more likely to be influential over the court’s decision.
In Camera Interview
The way the court determines the child’s preference is by talking to them in private. In most cases, children are not required to testify in open court. That kind of situation could be traumatizing for a child of any age. Instead, the judge usually will meet with the child in their office (called the judge’s chambers). The only people present are the judge, the child, a court reporter, and the child’s Law Guardian (an attorney appointed by the court to represent the child).
The court reporter records the interview, but it is sealed and unavailable for the parents or their attorneys to see it. Most judges take the time to chat with the child and get to know them, helping them feel comfortable, and then gently ask a few questions about where they live and where they would like to live, and how they would like to spend time with their parents. The judge can then decide how much weight (if any) to give to the child’s preferences.
Preparing Your Teen for the Interview
If your teen will be speaking with the judge, it’s important to let them know in advance, so they have time to think about it. You absolutely should not try to influence what your child will say in that interview, either directly (by telling them what you want them to say or reminding them of things they have told you about the other parent) or indirectly (such as letting them know they will get a new convertible if they are living with you next summer).
When speaking honestly, teens can be very blunt, and they often let these things slip when speaking with the judge. Above all else, you should not try to guilt your teen into saying they want to live with you. Any influence you try to exert will backfire. The Law Guardian will accompany your teen to the interview and will likely also talk with them about what to expect and how the conversation will go.
Living with a Teen and a Custody Order
The biggest problem in having a teenager and a custody order is getting your teen to comply with it. If you and your ex live in the same area and your 16-year-old has their license, a car, a busy school schedule, sports, extracurriculars, a job, friends, and a boyfriend or girlfriend, neither parent is going to see much of them no matter what the custody order says. Trying to get a child in that situation to comply with a custody order is like herding cats.
The older your teenager, the less likely they are going to be interested in following a court order that directs how their time is spent. However, if you and your ex live in different cities, states, or countries, it is harder for a teen to flout a court order and go where they want since their school will be in one area and one parent in another area. In that situation, the court order is significant. But if the teen is resistant to seeing the parent who is out of the area, getting them to visit can be challenging.
The problem with a teen who doesn’t want to comply is that both parents answer to the court if the schedule is not followed. If your custody order says your teen is to live primarily with your spouse and spend weekends with you, but he moves his stuff into your house and says, “I’m not going back there, and you can’t make me,” you are the person who will be held to be in violation of the court order. The court requires the parents to follow the order, and this can be very difficult if the teen will not cooperate.
Dealing with Non-Compliance
As the parent of a teen in this situation, it’s important to recognize that teenagers feel a need to assert their independence and that making their own choices about their living situation may be how they react to a court custody order, the divorce, or break up.
Everyone in the family needs to recognize the importance of the custody order though. Your teen needs to understand that both parents are legally obligated to follow it and that ignoring it can place one parent in legal jeopardy.
At the very least, both parents should encourage their teen to continue to have a relationship with the other parent. If you and the other parent can establish some trust, you can create a situation where you believe each other will encourage the teen to spend time with both of you. If you can’t establish this, the parent that the teen refuses to see is very likely to file enforcement and violation actions against the other parent because they will believe that parent is behind the teen’s refusal, encouraging them to refuse to comply.
If you are in a situation where your teen will not comply with the order, talk with your attorney and document everything that happens. Your responsibility is to attempt to follow the schedule. Do everything you can to comply and keep notes about how your teen behaves and responds.
Parenting a teenager can be challenging. Parenting a teenager with a custody order can be even more difficult. Doing your best to encourage compliance by your teen and the other parent is important.