At what age can a child refuse visitation in Missouri?
Children who are subject to a child custody order typically have a schedule for visitation, also known as “parenting time,” with each parent. They may reside primarily with one parent, known as the “custodial parent,” and see the “non-custodial” parent on certain weeknights and weekends, holidays, and other occasions. Parents may work out a visitation schedule as part of their divorce or in a separate legal proceeding. They may work with a mediator or use collaborative law procedures to determine a schedule. If they cannot reach an agreement, the court will set a schedule for them after a trial. Finding a balance between everyone’s schedules and obligations is almost always difficult. A child can complicate it further by refusing visitation with the non-custodial parent. Is there an age at which a child can legally refuse visitation? What are a parent’s rights and obligations in this situation?
When Can a Child Refuse Visitation with a Parent?
This is a more difficult question than it might appear to be at first. If the question is “when can a child legally refuse visitation?”, the short answer is “never.” Missouri law does not provide a procedure for a child to decline parenting time. That said, situations may occur when it would not be in a child’s best interests to have visitation with a parent. We will explore that possibility in more detail below.
We could rephrase the question to ask “at what age can a child refuse to visit a parent?” That is still a tricky question. The simple answer is that a child can refuse visitation once they turn eighteen. It is tricky because, once they are eighteen years old, they are no longer a “child” as far as Missouri law is concerned.
Missouri allows a child to state a preference as to which parent has primary custody once they reach the age of twelve. A court is not bound by the child’s preference, but the judge must give it some consideration. This does not, however, mean that a child who is twelve or older can refuse visitation with a parent. Custody and visitation are two distinct issues, legally speaking.
Understanding Why a Child Is Refusing Visitation
Missouri law states that, as a matter of public policy, it is in a child’s best interest to have “frequent, continuing and meaningful contact with both parents,” unless a court finds specific reasons why this would not be the case. If the visitation schedule in a custody order tries to provide a child with “frequent, continuing and meaningful contact” with their non-custodial parent, both parents have an obligation to ensure that this contact occurs. They need to understand why a child might be refusing visitation.
Questions a Custodial Parent Can Ask
A custodial parent’s job is to get the child to the location where the non-custodial parent picks them up for visitation periods. Up to a certain age, they might be able to deliver the child to the other parent even if the child does not want to go. Once the child reaches a certain age — usually the pre-teen or teenage years — forcing them to visit the other parent becomes difficult or impossible.
In any situation, they should ask the child why they do not want to visit the other parent. A counselor or other mental health professional may be able to help if the child cannot or does not want to explain why.
The child may have a valid concern about their own safety with the non-custodial parent. In that situation, the custodial parent should contact a family lawyer immediately to discuss options before they open themselves up to liability for violating the custody order.
Questions a Non-Custodial Parent Can Ask
A non-custodial parent is at a disadvantage when their child is refusing visitation. If they are only hearing about this from the custodial parent, they should ask to speak to the child. A custodial parent withholding visitation while claiming the child does not want to visit is, unfortunately, a rather common occurrence.
The non-custodial parent has rights in situations where the custodial parent meddles with visitation. They should continue to make themselves available for every visitation period, and leave it to the other parent to stand them up. This will help should they decide to seek enforcement from the court.
What You Can Do If Your Child Refuses Visitation
If your child is refusing visitation with you or their other parent, you may have several options. Going to court should be your last resort. Whatever the child’s reason for refusing visitation, the process of litigating a motion to enforce might only make things worse. An enforcement case could end up with someone going to jail, after all.
Talk to the Child
As discussed above, talking to the child could help clear things up for either or both parents. The child may have legitimate safety concerns, or they might have concerns that make sense to them based on their age and maturity level.
Try a Different Schedule for Parenting Time
As a child grows up, they often need new routines. A visitation schedule that worked for a child through kindergarten and elementary school might not work anymore once they start middle school. The parents can agree on changes to the visitation schedule on their own, through their attorneys, or with the help of a mediator. If the changes are significant, they can submit an agreed order to the court modifying the schedule.
Go to Court to Enforce the Visitation Order
If nothing else succeeds, the non-custodial parent can file a motion to enforce the visitation order. This should be a last resort in situations where the custodial parent is interfering with visitation in some way. Going to court solely because the child is refusing visitation could make matters worse as easily as it could resolve them.
Disputes over child custody and visitation can be difficult at the best of times. The process can be even harder when a child is refusing visitation with a parent. Kansas City family attorney Mark A. Wortman has dedicated his law practice to helping people with child custody disputes and other distressing family law matters. Please contact us today at (816) 523-6100 or online to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.