If you’re co-parenting with a custody agreement in place, moving away can be complicated. This is doubly true if one parent is moving out of state or far away enough that their new plans will disrupt your current child custody arrangement. The non-moving parent has rights, too.
Whether you share joint custody or visitation rights, chances are high that you and your co-parent will have to revisit the terms of your custody arrangement, in part or in full.
If you’re thinking about how hard it was to figure out custody the first time around, renegotiating all the logistics of your child custody arrangement might feel like an overwhelming task. But a strategic approach with the right legal help can make the transition as smooth as possible.
1. Understand the Law for Move-Away Cases
California Family Code 7501 gives parents who are “entitled to custody” a presumptive right to move away. This right is not absolute and can be denied if the move is detrimental to the child.
- In sole custody arrangements, the non-custodial parent has the “substantial burden” of proving that a relocation would be detrimental to their children.
- However, in joint custody arrangements where both parents share “significant periods” of physical custody, neither parent has a presumptive right to move away.
Parents who share custody must petition their California family court with a move-away request. In joint custody situations, courts will decide custody de novo – fresh, with both moving and non-moving parents starting on a level negotiating field.
Under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), the court will make its decisions primarily based on the best interests of your children.
Although the law acts as a guide, every single move-away case is unique. The judge assigned to your case will look at all the relevant facts in your case, including:
- The reasons behind the move
- How far away the proposed relocation will be
- How much physical custody is shared between each parent
- The children’s relationship and bond with each parent,
- How the move will affect the stability and continuity of your children’s lives
- Whether moving away from their community would hurt your children’s mental health
If your children are old enough that asking them would be appropriate, the court may consider their preferences about where they’d like to stay.
Understanding the law is a critical part of success in a custody modification or move-away situation. Family law has decades of nuances that only an expert can navigate successfully. The choices you make now about your children’s living arrangements can change your future custody rights in ways you may not anticipate. When the stakes are this high, you want a family lawyer you can trust on your side to fight for your custody rights.
2. Map Out a Strategic Plan for Moving Forward
Whether you’re filing a move-away request or facing one, a strategic approach is best.
If you’re the moving parent, you must plan ahead. Once you file a move-away request with the family court, your first hearing date will likely be scheduled a couple of months away, after you and your co-parent have had a chance to mediate or negotiate custody issues. Most often, one parent (or the court) will order a custody evaluation where a psychologist makes a recommendation to the court on what type of parenting schedule is best for the child, if the moving parent moves away.
Sometimes moves can happen suddenly, but it’s best to start planning as soon as you know you’ll be moving. If either party is on a tight timeline, that could be incentive to negotiate terms.
In addition to planning the logistics of your case, you must also take the time to strategically address each of the factors that courts look at to determine custody. Highlight the strongest arguments in your defense and explain any circumstances that would hurt your case.
For example, a court is not likely to grant a move-away request based simply on one co-parent’s wish to be farther away from the other. (In fact, this could actually hurt your case, unless your relationship involves domestic violence.) A move-away request could be denied if the only reason is that one parent wants to live closer to a new boyfriend or girlfriend.
To strengthen a move-away case, you must demonstrate that your move benefits your children. Does the relocation put you closer to extended family? Are the schools better in the new neighborhood? Is the cost of living lower so that you can spend more on your children?
The same strategic analysis applies to parents who are opposing move-away orders. To prove your case, you must show that your children are better off staying local. You can offer evidence demonstrating that the move will be harmful to your children or your relationship with them.
3. Approach the Process in Good Faith
California family courts make custody decisions based on the best interests of each child. When a family has no history of domestic abuse, courts generally believe a child’s best interest is to maintain a relationship with both parents to the greatest possible extent.
Trying to interfere with your co-parent’s right to see their child is bound to backfire.
Unless you have good justification that you can back up with proof, courts do not look kindly on a parent moving away to restrict their co-parent’s access to their child. Taking this type of “bad faith” approach is likely to hurt your chances of getting your move approved. It might even hurt or limit your own custody rights beyond just the move-away request.
4. Be Open to Collaboration With Your Co-Parent
The most successful move-away cases involve parents who are willing to collaborate with each other. Custody arrangements get increasingly complicated the farther away parents live. If you can show a court that you can make the distance work, that’s a big plus in your favor.
When making custody determinations, courts can look at your previous behavior as examples of how you and your co-parent will work together in the future. If you have a history of trying to obstruct your co-parent’s access to your children, that could reflect poorly on your move-away request. If you have a history of open communication and cooperation in order to achieve the best outcome for your child, that evidence will help your case.
5. Honesty Really Is the Best Policy
No one is perfect and no case is, either. Even if you have “bad” facts in your case (such as a criminal record), the best approach is to own up to those issues. Instead of lying about your past, you can explain your circumstances and overcome any factors against you.
Lying to the court then getting caught is infinitely worse than addressing any issues head-on. If you take an honest approach with the judge, they’re more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt in situations where the facts could go either way. This can be invaluable to your case.
The best step you can take is to hire a family lawyer whose experience and judgment you trust. Your attorney can help you handle any challenges you face in your move-away case.