When you first go to court to get a formal custody or visitation order, you may be very sure of the arrangement that you want. But over the years, things can change. You may want to move, or your ex may want to move. You may take a new job with different hours and responsibilities than you had before. As your child gets older, they may have more social obligations and other commitments of their own, and you may want to adjust your visitation schedule to better accommodate them. The good news is that even though your custody order or visitation order is probably marked as permanent, it can be changed as your life circumstances change. Take a look at what you need to know about modifying a custody or visitation order.
Why Do You Need A Modification?
You can change a custody or visitation order at any time, but not for just any reason. For example, you can’t modify the agreement just because you’d prefer to spend more time with your child, and you also can’t modify it because you want your child to have less time with your ex (unless, of course, your ex is harming or neglecting your child in some way.)
In most cases, you’ll need to show that there’s been some substantial change in circumstances since the original order was put into place. A major move that is about to take place or has already taken place is an example. If you were denied visitation or joint custody because the judge determined that you were unfit for some reason, such as a substance abuse problem or lack of a safe place for your child to live, showing that you’ve completed a rehabilitation program or secured safe and stable housing may be a big enough change to justify modifying the order. In some cases, drastic changes in work schedules may also be sufficient reason to make a change. For example, if you always worked overnight shifts and wouldn’t have been home to supervise your child at night, you may not have been granted overnight visitation in your original visitation order. If you now work a 9 am-5 pm job, there should be no reason why you couldn’t now have overnight visitation.
Custody and visitation orders can also be modified when one parent becomes unable to care for the child. For example, if your ex has primary custody, but then becomes seriously ill and is unable to provide or care for your child, you may be able to take over primary custody yourself. If you have evidence that your child is being mistreated or neglected in their other parent’s home, that’s also a good reason to modify custody.
Whatever your reasons for requesting a modification to your custody or visitation order, you’ll need to show proof of them to the court. So, for example, if you’re asking for a modification because you’re planning to move due to being transferred at work, you’ll probably need to show the court your contract with your employer or other documentation explaining the terms of the transfer. If you’re showing the court that you’ve made changes that make you a more fit parent, such as securing stable housing, you’ll need to show proof of that – maybe your lease or your rent receipts.
And if you’re alleging some type of misconduct by your child’s other parent, you’ll also need to show some type of documentation proving that. This can be difficult, but there are many ways to document possible mistreatment or abuse. If your child says something to you that suggests they’re being mistreated, write it down, along with the time and date. That way you’ll have a record. You can call witnesses who may be able to corroborate your claims, like your child’s teacher, doctors, or neighbors. If you see physical evidence, like bruises or scratches on your child’s skin, you should take a picture of it so that you have evidence for the court.
What to do First
In some cases, you may want to approach the other parent with your request to modify the custody or visitation order. This isn’t always a good idea, but if you and your child’s other parent are on generally friendly terms and are usually able to work together for the good of your child, then you should start with them. If they agree with your proposed changes, getting a modification will be much simpler. You can both sign a modified parenting plan and submit it to the court, and most likely it will be approved.
Otherwise, your first step will be to file a motion to modify the parenting plan in family court. You’ll need to specify the changes that you want to make, as well as your reason for them. So, if you’re asking for full custody or just asking to modify the visitation schedule – for example, going from alternating weekends to an extended summer and holiday visitation schedule because you anticipate moving out of state, you’ll need to spell that out.
Mediation and Court
Depending on your state and the circumstances of your case, the family court might require you to attend mediation with your child’s other parent in order to come to an agreement between the two of you. If mediation isn’t required, or if you’re unable to reach an agreement in mediation, the next step will be to make your argument for the family court.
You don’t have to hire a lawyer for family court if you can’t afford to or don’t want to. You’re allowed to represent yourself. If you have the proper documentation and you understand how to navigate courtroom procedures, there should be no reason why can’t effectively make your own case for a visitation or custody agreement modification.
A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you make your case for a modification. They’ll help you store your documentation, fill out and file the correct forms, and prepare to make your case in court.