Divorce and separation are incredibly difficult for everyone involved, and especially so when children are a part of the picture. One question that frequently arises is, at what point does a child get a say in who they live with? As a family solicitor, I often help parents navigate this complex and emotionally charged issue. In this blog, I’ll explain what the UK law says and some of the factors courts consider when determining a child’s living arrangements.

No Magic Age: UK Law Prioritises Child’s Welfare

It’s a common misconception that there’s a specific age when a child automatically gets to choose which parent they want to live with. The reality in UK family law is that the focus is always on the child’s best interests. No single age guarantees a child’s wishes will always be followed.

The Children Act 1989 is the guiding legislation. It outlines a ‘welfare checklist’ that judges must take into account when making decisions about children. This includes things like:

  • The child’s wishes and feelings (considering their age and understanding)
  • The child’s physical, emotional, and educational needs
  • The likely effect of any change in circumstances
  • The child’s age, sex, background, and any other relevant characteristics
  • Any risk of harm the child may be exposed to
  • The capability of each parent to meet the child’s needs

The Evolving Voice of the Child

Whilst there’s no official decision-making age, courts generally start giving more weight to a child’s views around the age of 10. The older a child gets, and the more mature and well-reasoned their expressed preference is, the harder it may be for a court to ignore those wishes.

By the time a child reaches 16, unless there’s a very compelling reason to the contrary, their decision about where to live is likely to be respected. This is because, at 16, a child is considered to have sufficient understanding to make their own life choices. However, it’s important to note that if a Child Arrangements Order is in place from earlier proceedings, this may stipulate living arrangements until a child reaches 18.

Factors Beyond Age

Even if a child is younger than 10, their feelings and opinions aren’t entirely disregarded. Courts may appoint a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officer, a social worker specialising in child welfare. The CAFCASS officer’s role includes speaking with children and reporting their views confidentially to the court.

Other factors influencing a court’s decision include:

  • The strength of the bond with each parent: A child might have a stronger attachment to one parent due to existing caregiving arrangements or other circumstances.
  • Practical considerations: Where a child goes to school, proximity to friends, and the ability of each parent to provide a stable home are important factors.
  • The child’s safety and wellbeing: Courts will investigate any allegations of abuse or neglect to prioritise the child’s safety.

Helping Your Child Cope

As a family solicitor, I understand that the child’s emotional well-being is paramount amidst these difficult decisions. Parents should reassure their children that they are loved, regardless of the living arrangements. Ideally, parents should strive to reach an amicable agreement outside of court, perhaps with the help of mediation. This fosters a sense of agency for the child and can reduce the stress of court proceedings.

Finding the Right Support

If you’re facing questions about your child’s living arrangements, seeking legal advice from a family solicitor is crucial. An experienced solicitor can explain the complexities of the law, advocate for your child’s best interests, and guide you towards the most positive outcome for your family.