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Can a Child Choose Which Parent They Live With?

By: Z Family Law

Child custody lawyers in Maryland will tell you that some of the most contentious cases they see are child custody disputes between divorcing couples or unmarried co-parents. When parents can’t agree on what’s best for their children, things can get ugly. 


Of course, the parents aren’t the only ones grappling with child custody disputes - the children involved often have strong opinions about where they want to live and with whom they want to spend their time. One question we often hear is: “can my child(ren) decide which parent they will live with after divorce?” Read on for the answer to this FAQ. 


Types of Custody in Maryland Child Custody Cases

There are two types of custody in Maryland: legal custody and physical custody. 


Legal custody concerns decision-making authority for educational, medical, and religious decisions, among other things. The court can award legal custody to either (sole legal custody) or both (shared legal custody) parents. In some cases of shared legal custody, the court may award one parent “tie breaking authority,” which essentially grants that parent the authority to make the final decision if the parents cannot come to an agreement. 


Physical custody, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like: where and with whom the child will physically spend their time. In most cases, when someone asks whether their child has a say in their custody arrangement, they’re referring to physical custody. 


When determining custody, the courts mix and match physical and legal custody, taking into account a family’s specific circumstances, to determine what it believes to be the best solution for each child.


How is Child Custody Determined in Maryland Courts?

In Maryland child custody cases, the court is responsible for crafting a custody arrangement that protects a child’s best interests. To do so, they evaluate a number of different factors, including:

  • The parent-child relationship
  • The financial status of each parent
  • Each parent’s ability to care for the emotional needs of the child
  • The child’s preference
  • Each child’s current routine and the solution that offers the least amount of disruption
  • The lifestyle of each parent
  • The physical and mental condition of each parent

In most cases, courts also emphasize preserving a child’s relationship with both parents, assuming it is safe to do so. 


Maryland Courts Will Consider a Child's Preference if they are Over the Age of 16

In Maryland, the court will directly take into account a child’s preference if they are over the age of 16. Further, at the age of 16, a child can petition the court to modify an existing custody arrangement


However, it’s important to note that a child’s preference is only one of several things a judge will consider, and if the court finds that, based on other factors, a different custody arrangement would not be in the child’s best interest, they may decline to grant the child’s wishes.


Children Under 16 May Still Have Their Preference Considered

For children younger than 16, on a case-by-case basis, the court may consider their preferences. There a number of ways in which a younger child’s opinion may be heard in Maryland court cases:

  • A best interest attorney may be appointed to represent the child, and to communicate the child’s wishes on their behalf.
  • A private or court-appointed custody evaluator may present the child’s preferences as expressed during the course of their custody evaluation.
  • Although somewhat rare, in some cases, a child will be permitted to testify in court with or without their parents present, or speak to the judge in their chambers outside of court.


Ultimately, asking a child to decide who they live with places a lot of pressure on them, and children are not emotionally mature enough or equipped to handle these decisions. Further, kids are often susceptible to other influences - it’s not uncommon in custody cases for a parent to try to make their child feel negatively about the other parent (called parental alienation). It’s for these reasons that courts protect children by looking at the bigger picture to determine what’s in a child’s best interests rather than allowing kids to unilaterally decide who they will live with. 


Even (and perhaps especially) if your child doesn’t get to decide what their custody arrangement looks like, you can help them navigate this difficult time by focusing on making them feel understood, heard, and validated at home.


Contact an Experienced Maryland Child Custody Lawyer

If you're navigating a contentious child custody case, you need a compassionate and knowledgeable Maryland child custody attorney by your side. We can help. Contact our Rockville Child Custody Lawyers today by calling (301) 388-5528 or emailing

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