Sometimes, a child custody or visitation order becomes impractical or inappropriate. In these situations, you may be able to change the terms and conditions of the order. However, you must meet specific rules and requirements before your custody or visitation order will be modified.

What Is a Child Visitation Order?

When parents cannot agree on custody rights, the courts will issue a custody order that is in the child’s best interest. Generally speaking, there are two primary types of child custody:

  • Legal custody:  Your right to make important decisions for your child (such as decisions about education, health care, and religion).
  • Physical custody: The time you physically spend with your child. When you have physical custody of your child, you are responsible for making basic, day-to-day parenting decisions.

Typically, courts award joint legal custody (although sole legal custody is awarded in some situations). Physical custody is not always evenly shared. Instead, one parent may have primary physical custody of the child. The other parent is entitled to visitation—which may be either supervised or unsupervised.

Once a child visitation order is issued, both parents must follow its terms. However, as time passes, child custody and visitation orders may become overly burdensome or inappropriate. For example, the child’s needs or wishes may change. Or, a parent may relocate out of state, making visitation difficult. In these situations, an order can be modified.

How Do I Modify an Existing Child Custody or Visitation Order?

To modify a custody order, you must file a petition to modify with the court. Custody and visitation orders may be modified if:

  • Both parents agree to a modification, or
  • The court approves one parent’s petition to modify.

However, courts are limited in their ability to modify custody orders. In some states, there is a waiting period before modification is permitted. 

Under What Circumstances Will a Court Modify a Child Custody or Visitation Order?

Typically, you cannot modify a custody order without evidence of a significant change in circumstances. Examples of sufficiently changed circumstances include:

  • Changes in a child’s emotional and developmental needs,
  • A job change or relocation making the current custody order impractical,
  • Evidence of child abuse or domestic violence,
  • Concerns about the safety or stability of one parent’s home,
  • An older child now wishes to spend more or less time with a parent, or when
  • One parent is in clear violation of the custody order.

Once the court receives a petition to modify a custody order, it will determine what is in the best interest of the child. (Modifications are made only when the current order is no longer in a child’s best interest.)

It is important that you request modification of a custody order only when necessary. If you can negotiate a voluntary modification with the other parent, you may avoid costly legal fees. And, if the court determines that your petition is without merit, you may be responsible for the other parent’s legal fees and costs. 

What If My Child Custody or Visitation Order Was Violated?

If your child’s other parent violates the custody order, you may have grounds to modify the arrangement. However, it is important that document his or her violations. You should:

  • Contact the police if the parent refuses to return the child or appears to have kidnapped the child,
  • Notify the police or child protective services if there is evidence of child abuse,
  • Report serious violations to your child custody lawyer, and
  • File a petition for contempt of court or a petition to modify.

However, you should never retaliate against the other parent (for example, by violating the custody order yourself). You also should not badmouth the other parent in front of your child. (Courts sometimes consider a parent’s hostility when awarding or modifying custody.)

Do I Need a Child Custody Attorney?

Because parenting time is valuable, child custody disputes can become emotionally charged. A lot is at stake, and it may be in your best interest to hire a lawyer. A child custody lawyer can help you negotiate with the other parent, file a petition for modification, and present a compelling case on your behalf. (To learn more about potential legal costs, see our article on child custody lawyers’ fees.)