A child custody agreement can be subject to change as the parents’ and children’s circumstances may change over time. As parents move on with their separate lives, new partners, new jobs or new homes can affect a parenting plan in significant ways. As children get older, their needs, interests, and activities may change as well.

One or both of the parents may want to change the child custody order so that their children’s best interests are served. All of this may require changes to a parenting plan and if parents are able to resolve these issues on their own, it is relatively easy to alter a child custody plan. But if the parents cannot agree with each other, they will end up in court where a judge will make a decision.

When Can a Custody Agreement be Modified?

It is important to note that there may be limitations in terms of when custody agreements can be adjusted. Some custody orders may specify that, unless there has been a material change in circumstances, a custody order cannot be adjusted for a certain period of time. A “material change” is not a fleeting or temporary adjustment but rather something that is permanent and creates a major impact on a child’s life and includes factors such as:

  • Moving to another state;
  • A parent’s new financial situation;
  • A parent’s new job which requires long hours;
  • If a child is struggling academically under the care of a particular parent; or
  • If remarriage brings in several stepchildren for one parent.

A parent can ask a court to issue a new custody order under these or similar circumstances. A new custody order may better meet the child’s physical and emotional needs, given the major change.

How to Modify a Custody Agreement

If the parents are able to communicate with each other effectively, they can reach their own agreement and a judge would not have to get involved. Sometimes, parents are able to work out custody schedules by themselves while other times, a mediator is needed to help the parents come to an agreement. Any proposed agreement will be reviewed by a judge to make sure that the child’s best interests are served. Once the court approves the custody plan, it will become an official court order.

If the parents choose to resolve their custody and visitation issues with the help of a trained mediator, the mediator can also probably help them write up an agreement that the judge may sign. If the parents are not able to reach an agreement in mediation, they will both go in front of the judge who will then make a decision. In some jurisdictions where there is “child custody recommending counseling”, a counselor will make a recommendation to the judge. A parent that is seeking the custody modification will need to file a motion or petition, which is a type of written request to a judge, along with submitting evidence which shows the change in circumstances.

The issues which surround the need for a custody change can be difficult to prove and it may be necessary to bring witnesses and experts to testify in your case. Family friends or babysitters can be brought in to testify about the child’s living situation and patterns; documents such as report cards from school and health records can also be useful. The parents or the court may request a custody evaluation for complex custody cases. A custody evaluator will then review the evidence and interview family members to make a custody recommendation to a judge. The judge may decide to follow the recommendation or may decide to do something different.

In order to ask for a court hearing to change your existing custody and visitation order, you will have to look at the rules in your jurisdiction which can include some or all of the following requirements.

  • Filling out the relevant court forms;
  • Having your forms reviewed by your attorney or a family law facilitator appointed by the court;
  • Filing your forms with the court clerk;
  • Getting your court date or mediation date;
  • Serving your papers on the other parent;
  • Filing your proof of service; and/or
  • Going to your mediation or court hearing.

Where Can You Find the Right Lawyer?

Changing a child custody agreement can be complicated and it can involve many different steps. To make sure you don’t miss any key steps, it is important to consult with an experienced child custody lawyer before proceeding.