How Old Does a Child Have to Be to Testify in Court?

By Sharon Perkins
Going to court can be a frightening event for a child.
Going to court can be a frightening event for a child.

Children end up entangled in the legal system for numerous reasons, most not of their own making. Most states set no age limit on when children can testify in court. Instead, the judge presiding over the case evaluates the child and determines whether or not the child is capable of accurately testifying. Going to court can be a frightening and difficult experience for a child, even when well prepared.

Criteria Determining a Child's Ability to Testify

A child can't testify in court if he isn't old enough to accurately remember events that occurred or if he isn't able to accurately describe the events. A child must also be able to tell the difference between the truth and a lie and must understand the need to tell the truth in court, according to a subject review published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in an issue of Pediatrics. In some states, such as Texas, children as young as 4 years old have been allowed to testify, based on these criteria, Texas judge Bonnie Sudderth explains.

Custody Hearings

Children often fear that they will have to choose between their parents in a custody hearing, but this is rarely required. Laws on when children can testify vary by state. In California, children over age 14 are allowed to speak in court in a custody hearing if they wish to, as long as the judge finds no reason why testifying would not be in the child's best interest. Other states have no set age but judge on an individual basis. Ask your lawyer about your state's regulations.

Other Types of Cases

In some cases, such as abuse cases, the child's testimony might constitute an important part of the case. A 3 or 4 year old's recollection of major events is usually excellent, while lesser events might be less well remembered, according to the Pediatrics article. A child's testimony can be tainted by suggestibility, adult coercion or intentional deception by the child. Testifying against family members can put considerable strain on a child; other responsible adults and members of legal team must weigh the effects on the child before allowing them to testify.

Preparing a Child for Court

If your child must go to court, thorough preparation can help make a very difficult situation easier on him. Taking your child to the courtroom and letting him become familiar with where things are, where he will sit and where others involved in the case will sit can help defuse some of his anxiety about the unknown. Explaining court procedures and meanings of frequently used courtroom terms can also help him understand what he might see and hear. Some areas offer "court school" to help prepare children who must testify, the CASA for Children website states.

About the Author

A registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology, Sharon Perkins has also coauthored and edited numerous health books for the Wiley "Dummies" series. Perkins also has extensive experience working in home health with medically fragile pediatric patients.