This is a question that I am asked frequently. Under the governing statute, Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 28 §28, a child cannot decide with which parent they want to live until he or she reaches the age of 18 years. The court makes these decisions, based on the best interest of the child. While a child’s stated position is important, it is not controlling.
In contrast, a child who is 12 years old or older may give his or her consent to being adopted. Similarly, a child who is 14 years or older can object or assent to the appointment of a guardian who would take over their custody.
In highly contested matters, a child may get an appointed counsel through the Children’s Law Project in Western Massachusetts or through the ARC program in the eastern part of the state. The role of an attorney for the child is to advocate for what the child says he or she wants. The role of an attorney for a child is NOT to determine what is in the child’s best interest. It is often said that children “have a voice, not a choice.“ This means that while it is vitally important for the court to know what the child wants, the child’s desires are only one factor to consider when a court makes a decision.
Even though many judges will say that an older teenager will “vote with their feet”, when describing a child who resists or refuses contact with one of his or her parents. A court’s decision becomes more complicated when a child disfavors one of the parents. In this type of situation, a court may appoint a professional known as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL).
The GAL‘s role, in contrast to the role of an attorney for the child, is to investigate and determine what is in the best interest of the child. Part of this responsibility would be to evaluate whether one parent is asserting unreasonable influence over the child’s decision making and behaviors relative to maintaining a relationship with the other parent
In conclusion, the answer to the question of when a child is old enough to decide where to live is multi layered and complex.