Family Law

How to Change a Child Custody Agreement

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Work schedules, children's school activities, and even custodial preferences don't usually stay the same over time. How do you modify a custody order to accommodate your ever-changing life?

A custody arrangement rarely works for every stage in a child's life. Parents’ circumstances change over time, and children’s needs will evolve as they grow, all of which may require changes to a parenting plan. When parents can resolve these issues on their own, altering a custody plan is relatively simple. But if you and your child’s other parent can’t agree, you'll end up in court, where a judge will decide.

When Can I Modify My Custody Agreement?

Even if parents agree to a custody change, there are limitations as to when custody agreements can be adjusted. For example, some custody orders will specify that the arrangement can’t be adjusted for 3 years, unless there has been a material change in circumstances. A “material change” is more than a fleeting, temporary adjustment in a child’s life. Generally, the change must be permanent and create a major impact on a child's life, such as:

  • a proposed move to another state
  • one parent's new job with long hours
  • the child’s living circumstances are unsafe or unsanitaryt
  • the child is severely struggling in school under the other parent’s care. or
  • one parent's remarriage, which includes the addition of several stepchildren.
Under these and similar circumstances, a parent can ask the court to issue a new custody order, which will better meet the child’s physical and emotional needs, considering the material change.

Can My Ex and I Reach our Own Agreement?

In an ideal world, parents would reach their own custody agreements, so that judges wouldn’t have to get involved. Some parents are able to work out custody schedules on their own. Other times, a mediator can help parents negotiate a mutually agreeable arrangement. A judge will review any proposed agreement to make sure that it serves the child’s best interests. With court approval, you and your ex’s new custody plan will become an official court order.

Petitioning the Court for a Custody Change

Parents that can’t agree will probably end up in court. If you’re the parent seeking the custody modification, you'll need to file a motion or petition, which is a written request to a judge. You must submit evidence showing the change in circumstances.

It can be difficult to prove the issues surrounding the need for a custody change. You may need to bring in witnesses and experts to testify in your case. Family friends or the child’s babysitter may be able to testify about the child’s living situation and patterns. School report cards, health records, or testimony from a therapist may also be helpful. For complex custody cases, parents—or the court—may request a custody evaluation. A custody evaluator will interview family members and review the evidence to make a custody recommendation to the judge. The judge may follow the recommendation or may create a different schedule entirely.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My ex has primary custody of our children and is planning to move out of state. I want to keep my children with me. What should I do?
  • My kids live with their father and are failing out of school. I worry about their school struggles. This is nothing new, but do I have grounds to modify custody?
  • I have sole custody of my kids, but I’m open to sharing custody with my ex. If we’ve already reached our own agreement, do we need to get a court involved?

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