When a child custody case is resolved, the court issues what is known as a permanent custody order. However, despite the word “permanent,” custody orders can be changed later if there’s a reason to do so. Changes may be made for several reasons – because one parent relocates, because of a change in living situations, because of changes in a parents’ ability to follow the agreed-upon visitation schedule, and for any number of other reasons. Changes in custody orders aren’t uncommon, but they do require the parents to go back to court. Take a look at some of the steps that you’ll need to take if you’re looking to have a custody order changed.
Approach the Other Parent
If you want a change in the custody order, the first person to approach shouldn’t necessarily be your lawyer or a judge, it should be the child’s other parent. Generally, if both parents agree to changes in a custody order, they can simply make the modifications, file it with the court, and the judge will accept it. This considerably reduces the time and expense of changing a custody order.
Of course, it’s not always possible to come to an agreement with the other parent. If there’s a restraining order in place that prevents you from contacting the other parent, for example, then you should definitely not approach them. And sometimes parents simply can’t agree. If you talk to your child’s other parent and the two of you can’t come to an agreement, then the court is there to resolve the dispute. But in general, it’s worth at least trying to come to an amicable agreement between the two of you before turning to the court.
File a Petition to Change the Custody Order
In the absence of an agreement between yourself and the other parent, your next step is to file a petition to change the custody order. Before you can do this, you need to determine exactly which changes you want.
Do you want every weekend instead of every other weekend? Do you want physical custody? Are you moving further away and asking for summer visitation instead of weekend visitation? Be clear about what you want. You can’t just ask for more or less parenting time – you need to submit a specific plan.
Prepare for Court
Before you appear in court, you’ll need to prepare your documentation and arguments for why the judge should make the changes to the custody agreement that you’ve requested. The type of documentation you need depends largely on what kinds of changes you’re requesting.
Are you arguing that you should take over physical custody? Then you’ll need to show that your child’s other parent is unfit – you may need to show evidence of abuse, neglect, or an unstable living situation. You’ll need to provide the court with a reason why you believe that you can provide a better environment for your child. You may need to be prepared to agree to a home study or parenting evaluation by a social worker, psychologist, or other professional.
Other situations require different types of documentation. Are you a parent with primary custody who wants to relocate to another state, reducing the noncustodial parent’s parenting time? You may need to show documentation of your reason for moving, such as a job offer or acceptance to an out-of-state university. Are you a noncustodial parent petitioning for more parenting time? You may need to show how things have changed since the previous order was put into place, allowing you to spend more time with your children.
Going to Court
In the courtroom, you’ll have an opportunity to present your documentation or evidence and make your case for why the custody order should be modified. The other parent will also be able to make their case, so if they don’t want the custody order to change, they’ll be able to give their reasons for why it should stay the same. It helps if you can anticipate the other parents’ objections so that you can answer them in court.
When you and your child’s other parent have both presented your cases, the judge will take time to consider both of your arguments. You may or may not get the changes that you’ve requested. You may get some of the changes you requested, but not all of them.
It’s important to remember that family courts operate on the principle of the best interests of the child, or children, in question. Even if you have a good reason to believe that the custody order should change, a judge might not be inclined to impose drastic changes on a child’s environment and routine if the current environment and routine aren’t harmful to them. So, for instance, if you’re asking to be allowed to relocate with your child to somewhere that’s far away from the other parent and will severely limit the other parent’s visitation or joint custody rights, a judge may be hesitant to allow the change without a very good reason.
On the other hand, experts also believe that children generally benefit when both parents are involved in their child’s life. So, a parent who is petitioning for more visitation time or for joint custody and who doesn’t pose any danger to their child is likely to be looked upon favorably by the court, even if the other parent objects to the change.
Alternatives to Court
In some cases, parents may be unable to come to an agreement between themselves but may also want to avoid court. In those cases, arbitration or mediation might be good alternatives that allow parents to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution.
Arbitration or mediation can be less expensive, less time-consuming, and less adversarial than going to court. With the help of a mediator, parents may be able to come to a compromise that they weren’t able to reach on their own. If parents still can’t come to an agreement in mediation or in arbitration, then they can always go to court later.
If you need to petition the court for a modified child custody order a legal resources group can help. A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you prepare documentation and testimony for court.