In a recent decision, the judge in the almost five-year custody case of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, awarded Pitt temporary joint custody of their five minor children, ranging in age from 12 to 17. Their eldest child is over 18 years old and is not involved in the ongoing custody case.
The couple was married in 2014, separated in 2016, with the terms of the divorce finalized in 2019. At the time of the divorce, Jolie petitioned the court for sole physical custody, which was amended in this most recent decision. The divorce and custody battle have been contentious and widely reported across media outlets, from People to NBC, and cited in more than 14MM Google searches.
The celebrity aspect of this custody battle brings a lot of attention on its own, but this recent decision also shines a light on how children’s interests are considered in family court. The role of the family court is to evaluate the child’s day-to-day experiences, negative and positive, with each parent. The process in which children testify in the custody proceedings is a delicate and difficult one, as it was in the Jolie-Pitt case. Based on the evidence, the presiding Judge declined to give the Jolie-Pitt children the opportunity to testify and thereby express their experiences and wishes to the court.
In California, if a child over the age of 14 requests permission to address the court during a custody hearing, the Judge must permit the child to do so unless she does not believe it is in the child’s best interest. In California and Florida, a child cannot be forced to testify as a witness in court.
It is the role of the representing attorney, along with the family court, throughout the custody case to remain committed to the welfare of the child. Our professional responsibility is to help outline the factors for the court, including the health, welfare, and safety of the child, whether there is a history of physical, sexual or mental abuse, or continued or chronic use of illegal drugs by the parents as well as the child’s sincere wish for the custody outcome. We must be the honest voice of the child because there may be times when they will not have the opportunity to advocate for themselves.