What Is a "Change in Circumstances" in a Custody Case?

By Elizabeth Rayne

Whether the case is concerning an original custody order or a custody modification, courts in every state are primarily concerned with what is in the best interests of the child. Even where the circumstances of a case have significantly changed, a court will only modify a custody order if it is in the best interests of the child. However, state law governs child custody issues and the particular factors up for consideration, time frame and process for requesting custody will vary by state.

Whether the case is concerning an original custody order or a custody modification, courts in every state are primarily concerned with what is in the best interests of the child. Even where the circumstances of a case have significantly changed, a court will only modify a custody order if it is in the best interests of the child. However, state law governs child custody issues and the particular factors up for consideration, time frame and process for requesting custody will vary by state.

Best Interests Standard

While the specific factors may vary, every state considers the best interests of the child when deciding whether or not to modify a custody arrangement. For example, 13 states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and Oregon, require courts to consider the emotional ties between children, parents and other family members. Other common "best interest" factors include the ability of each parent to take care of the child, mental and physical health of children and parents, and any incidents of domestic violence. Nearly half of all states, including New York and California, presume it is in the child's best interest to remain in the same home where he currently lives.

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Process for Modification

Once a custody order is in place, either parent may file a motion with the court to request a change in the custody order. Typically, the same court that ordered the original custody arrangement is responsible for changing the order. If parents agree to a modification, generally the parents simply file the agreement with the court. However, if parents do not agree, the court will usually schedule a hearing where the parent requesting the change will present evidence of the change in circumstances and why a change in custody is in the best interests of the child.

Substantial Change of Circumstances

A court may grant a custody modification if the circumstances have substantially changed since the time the original order was in place. Generally, the changes may concern either the parent or the child, and the court will only grant a modification if neither the parents nor the court knew about the changes at the time of the original order. Examples of a substantial change of circumstances may include use of illegal drugs, child abuse or a felony conviction. If the needs of the child change, such as changing needs in schooling or medical attention, courts may also consider modifying custody.

Improved Circumstances

While parents often seek a custody modification when one parent becomes unfit to take care of the child, a parent may also request a change in custody when his circumstances have improved. Sometimes, the court will originally deny a parent custody due to circumstances that were not in the best interests of the child, such as not having a job or the financial resources to provide a safe home for the child. If the parent's circumstances substantially change -- by securing employment, for example -- the court may modify the custody arrangement.

Time Frame

Some states require parents to wait a specific period of time before requesting a change in custody and restrict how often parents may request modifications. For example, Delaware courts do not let parents modify custody more frequently than once every two years, unless the child's physical health is in danger or emotional development is significantly impaired.

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Can Physical Custody Be Changed for Children When Parents Have Joint Legal Custody?

References

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Child Custody Law in Utah

Utah places a strong emphasis on both parents having meaningful contact with their children following a divorce. To that end, the law sets a minimum visitation requirement as part of most custody arrangements. Agreements between parents are encouraged and will be supported by the court so long as they promote the child's best interests. Utah courts retain the authority to modify an existing order if conditions change and may find a parent in contempt if an order is not followed.

North Carolina Modification of Child Support Laws

When North Carolina courts enter divorce decrees, they address topics such as child custody, child support and property division. Courts can sometimes modify the terms of a divorce when circumstances change after the divorce is finalized. Typically, courts can modify court-ordered child support when one parent can show that circumstances have changed.

What Determines Physical Custody in Maryland?

Understanding what physical custody is and why it is ordered by Maryland judges can help parents decide which type of parenting arrangement to pursue. The term "physical custody" refers to day-to-day decision-making in combination with providing a living environment for the child. Physical custody can be agreed upon by parents in lieu of a sole or joint legal custody court order. Judges in Maryland consider many factors in making an initial determination of custody, and a modification may be sought in the future by either parent.

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