If your parents separate, can you decide who you want to live with?

If your parents separate, you might have strong feelings about which parent you want to live with.

You'll probably be asked what you think about it all, but children don't usually get to decide which parent they live with or how much time they'll spend with each parent after a separation or divorce.

In BC:

  • a child is someone under the age of 19, and
  • any decisions about the time the child will spend with their parents have to be in the best interests of the child.

How will your parents decide what to do?

Your parents might make an agreement about how much time you'll spend with each of them. They:

  • might make this decision without asking you what you think, or
  • might talk to you about it first.

But if they can't agree, a court might have to decide about:

  • where you should live, or
  • how much time you'll spend with each of them after they separate.

Both your parents will probably get time to spend with you, but:

  • they might not get the same amount of time, and
  • it's possible that only one of them will be able to make significant decisions about things like your education, religion, and healthcare.

The BC Family Law Act and the federal Divorce Act both say that a child's relationships with both parents are important but that any decisions that affect you (including those made by a court) must only be made in your best interests. The law calls this acting in the best interests of the child.

What does best interests of the child mean?

Your best interests include considering what you want, unless it's not appropriate to consider that (for example, if you're very young). There are lots of other things to think about as well when a parenting decision is being made about you, including:

  • your health and emotional well-being (for example, how you'll be affected by the decision not only right now but also when you're older);
  • what you think or want, unless it's inappropriate to consider this;
  • the love and affection between you and other important people in your life;
  • your needs, including your need for stability, which can depend on your age and stage of development;
  • who looked after you in the past and how well they looked after you;
  • how well each person will be able to look after you;
  • if there was any family violence, its effect on your safety, security, and well-being; and
  • whether arrangements that need your parents to cooperate and communicate with each other (work together) are appropriate.

See Best interests of the child to find out more about this.

Will they listen to what you want?

That depends.

  • Your parents have to think about all sorts of things when they're working out what's best for you. Your opinion is one thing, but it's not the only thing. If your parents make a decision about you that you're not happy with, talk to them about it or talk to a counsellor. (The Child and Youth Legal Centre might also be able to help.)
  • If your parents go to court, the court might want to know what you think about what’s happening.

Your age and maturity will make a difference. If you're older, your parents and the court will be more likely to ask your opinion and it will have more influence on their decision.

But remember: your opinion isn't the only thing they have to think about.

If your parents are using the BC Family Law Act to sort out their separation, you can ask them to get a Hear the Child Report. This is a report done by a specially trained person who talks to you and writes down what you tell them.

Where can you find information about separation and divorce for kids?

Information for children & teens on this website has some helpful information.

And the Justice Education Society's Families Change website has some useful guides about separation and divorce for children and teenagers.

Their Legal Rights for Youth website will tell you about how the law applies to youth, including age-based legal rights, family break-up, work, driving, medical rights, mental health, abuse and sexual assault, crime, and online safety.

Putting children first

Tess explains the legal meaning of “best interests of the child” in our illustrated short story Putting children first.

Illustration to introduce story