When parents are divorced, who has the final say in big decisions in a child’s life? The parent with primary custody? Or are the child’s wishes the most important thing? With every person involved often having a different opinion, it can be unclear whose is controlling.
In a recent New Jersey case, a woman enrolled one of her 4 children from a previous marriage in Catholic school – against her ex-husband’s protests. The ex-wife, the residential parent, converted to Catholicism after she remarried. But the ex-husband believed she put their daughter in Catholic school to alienate him from her.
The daughter’s wishes were clear. In an email to her father, she said she likes Catholic school more than her former public school. She wrote, “I honestly think [I] will do better at this school, [because public school] isn’t the place for me…” She added that Catholic school was her choice and that no one was forcing her to go. The judge hearing the case gave the message a lot of weight when he decided to let the child continue to attend the Catholic school.
But on appeal, a higher court focused less on the wishes of the child, and more on the role of the parents and the “best interest of the child.” It held that divorced parents have a mutual obligation to discuss major decisions in their children’s lives- this specifically includes education. These type of decisions cannot be made by one parent alone. The best interests of the child are not determined by just a child’s wishes – that does not paint a full picture and courts must look at the desires of the parents and their efforts to work together to work out a problem on which they disagree. With assistance from Angela Yu, Rutgers School of Law & Rutgers Business School.