Massachusetts family law lawyer Jason V. Owens explores whether a 16-year old in Massachusetts can determine which parent he or she wants to live with.
Can a 16-year old decide which parent to live with in Massachusetts? On the surface, the question above is simple: the age of majority in Massachusetts is 18, which means that a 16-year old is a child who is subject to the custody decisions of the Probate and Family Court. Dig just below the surface, however, and the issue becomes more complicated.
It is true that a 16-year old is a minor as a matter of law. Any parent of a 16-year old knows that the real world says tells a somewhat different story, however. A 16-year old can drive in Massachusetts. A 16-year old can drop out of high school. A 16-year old in Massachusetts can, under most (but not all circumstances), have sexual intercourse with an adult without it being considered statutory rape, so long as the child is not engaged in prostitution. A 16-year in Massachusetts can likely obtain an abortion without her parents’ consent (although she’ll need to appear before a judge beforehand).
For these reasons, a 16-year old might technically be a “minor”, while holding quasi-adult status in many important ways. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts “child requiring services” statute, which has long dictated how parents must deal with “out of control children” in Massachusetts defines a child in need of services as “a child between the ages of 6 and 18 who: (i) repeatedly runs away from the home of the child’s parent, legal guardian or custodian; (ii) repeatedly fails to obey the lawful and reasonable commands of the child’s parent, legal guardian or custodian, thereby interfering with their ability to adequately care for and protect the child; (iii) repeatedly fails to obey the lawful and reasonable regulations of the child’s school; (iv) is habitually truant; or (v) is a sexually exploited child.” Under the statute, custody of the child can be assigned to DCF or DYS by order of the Juvenile Court.
Meanwhile, in the custody context, a judge should consider the wishes of the children in making custodial determinations, and those wishes “are entitled to weight in custody proceedings.” Care & Protection of Georgette, 439 Mass. 28, 36 (2003). The older the child, the greater weight his or her feeling on custody should hold.
In situations like this, the better question might be: what can a parent do to stop a 16-year old who decides he or she is moving in with a significant other, friend, or other parent? Short of committing the child to a DCF or DYS facility, most of the practical options involving convincing, cajoling, bribing or scaring the 16-year old into coming home. Locking the child up might work temporarily, but it is hardly a long term option.
About the Author: Jason V. Owens is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts and East Sandwich, Massachusetts. He is also a mediator for South Shore Divorce Mediation.