Q: I’m going through a horrible, messy divorce, and I’m afraid my worst fear may come true—my 13-year-old daughter wants to live with her father instead of me because the cheating bum is “cool” and I’m just an over-anxious nag. Really he is just lazy so he lets her do whatever she wants and I’m the only one who ever enforces any discipline. A friend told me that there is a new law that says a 14-year-old can choose which parent gets custody. Is this true?

A: Under California law, there is no specific age at which children can make custody or visitation decisions. The California Family Code, section 3042(a)), states that a court must “consider” and give “due weight” to the wishes of children who are of “sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent preference as to custody or visitation.”

The legislature amended this law in 2010, so maybe that is what your friend is thinking of. The amendment, effective January 1, 2012, requires a court to hear a child who wishes to address the court regarding custody or visitation if the child is14 years or older, unless the court determines that addressing the court is not in the child's best interests. In addition, a child who is younger than 14 years old and wishes to do so may be permitted to address the court regarding custody or visitation if the court determines that hearing from the child is in his or her best interests.

In other words, if the court determines that the child is mature enough to have informed opinions as to custody and visitation, then the court must use this opinion as one factor to consider when making the custody and visitation order.

Whether the minor is of “sufficient age and capacity,” the threshold prerequisite to consideration of the child's wishes, varies with each child. The requisite maturity is not measured by any particular chronological age.

Obviously the new law has not yet been tested in the courts. In previous case law, however, courts have become more receptive as the child approaches teenage years. In Marriage of Rosson, 178 Cal. App. 3d 1094 (1986), and Marriage of Burgess, 13 Cal. 4th 25 (1996), for example, 10-and 13-year-old children met the “sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent preference” standard. In Stuart v. Stuart, 209 Cal. App. 2d 478 (1962), the court said it would listen to children as young as seven or eight. In Marriage of Slayton, 86 Cal. App. 4th 653 (2001), the court found it doubtful that a 5-year-old could realistically meet the statutory standard. In Marriage of Mehlmauer, 60 Cal. App. 3d 104 (1976), however, the court determined that a 14-year-old boy did not meet the standard and refused to shift custody from the mother despite the child's wishes. The bottom line is that custody is awarded according to the best interests of the child.

The California cases referenced above can be located at http://www.lexisnexis.com/clients/CACourts/ by doing a citation search. After checking the box next to “I have read and agree to these Terms and Conditions,” and clicking on “BEGIN SEARCHING OPINIONS,” click on “By Citation” under the word “Search” on the top left of the screen. Use the “Search by Citation Criteria” template to input your search. For example, in the Stuart v. Stuart case, 209 Cal. App. 2d 478, the first number, 209, represents the volume number of the Reporter the case appears in, so type that number into the “Enter Volume” box. Then, using the pull-down menu, select the abbreviation for the Reporter the case appears in, “Cal. App. 2d.” In the “Enter Page #” box enter the second number in the citation, 478, which is the page upon which the case begins. Finally, click on the “GO” button to retrieve your case.

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email sacpress@saclaw.org. If your question is selected your answer will appear in next Thursday's column. Even if your question isn't selected, though, I will still respond within two weeks.

Coral Henning, Director
@coralh & @saclawlibrarian