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Report: SD Among States that Limit Child’s Custody Preference

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Friday, November 20, 2020   

PIERRE, S.D. -- More than a dozen states, including South Dakota, don't require a judge to factor in a child's preference when making custody decisions, according to a new analysis of these laws.

The report was issued by CustodyXChange, which develops software for people managing custody issues. The company's managing editor, Shea Drefs, said they've looked at a range of policies in the United States to make sure parents are fully aware of legal requirements in their respective state. The latest findings showed that in 13 states, a child's preference doesn't have to be considered if the court makes a final custody decision.

Drefs cited two conflicting viewpoints at the heart of the matter.

"I think everyone would probably, to some extent, agree that it'd be nice for a child to have a say in their life," she said, "but then also, it's understandable that we don't want to have the child in the middle of the custody battle."

She said those are factors South Dakota judges have to keep in mind, and they still have the option of taking a child's preference into account, even if they don't have to. Two neighboring states, Montana and Wyoming, also are among the 13 states that don't have the requirement.

For any states that do require a child's input, it's allowed only when the child is considered mature enough to have a reasonable opinion. The report said most states don't provide age-specific guidance, no matter what custody laws they have on the books. Drefs said South Dakota judges are in that group as well.

"In some cases, they might listen to what the child has to say, and others they might not," she said. "And probably, age will be one of the things they look at. But the law in South Dakota doesn't have any guidance."

She said the goal of the report isn't to advocate for any law changes, but provide more clarity for parents and legal professionals. In South Dakota, one of the more recent attempts to update child-custody laws happened earlier this year, when supporters pushed a bill focusing on equal physical custody. That bill failed in the state Senate.


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