This is an excerpt from the book I co-authored, “All About Texas Law and Kids.”

People frequently ask, “When my child turns 12 can’t she decide to come live with me?”  This is probably the biggest myth in all of family law.

When a child turns 12, she is entitled to express an opinion about with who she wants to live. The judge still makes the final decision based on the child’s best interest. Before the age of 12, the child has no right to express an opinion in the court proceedings.

A child who is at least 12 years old begins to have opinions, and sometimes strong opinions, about her living environment. The judge remains the final authority on where the child lives so the judge can examine the basis of the child’s choice and her motivations. For example, if the child is being defiant in Mom’s house because she doesn’t like Mom’s rules, and Dad lets the child run wild, the judge will not likely listen to the child’s desire to live with Dad. Or, if Dad promised the child a car if he “picked Dad,” again, the judge will not likely listen to the child’s desire. However, if the child wants to go live with Dad because Dad’s house is within walking distance of the natatorium and the child is a competitive swimmer, then the judge might well listen to the child’s wishes.

Prior to September 1, 2009, the law allowed the child to file a written preference as to where she wants to live. Many judges disfavored this law and the practice of some lawyers representing a parent in obtaining the child’s signature on the written preference. Due to the disfavor and frequent abuses in that system, the Legislature eliminated the written preference statements effective September 1, 2009. HB 1151 81st Legislature, S3. A child may now express his or her preference, but not in writing. Upon request of a party at a trial hearing, a judge must interview in chambers a child 12 years or older. As one judge astutely noted, the law may require the judge to talk to the child in chambers, but the law does not tell him what to ask. For a judge who disfavors “putting kids in the middle,” even making such a request may harm a parent’s request for conservatorship.

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, 2011-2018, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. In 2014-2018, Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America for 2016 and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.