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How do I modify my child custody orders?

People often forget that divorce is breaking a legal marriage contract through the courts. As such, any changes to the official divorce decree should also be pursued through the courts, as well. As circumstances change after a divorce, it is sometimes necessary to modify child custody or visitation orders.

At the time of the divorce, two types of custody are determined: Legal custody and physical custody. Often, legal custody is granted to both parents while primary physical custody is granted to one parent with visitation or custody rights granted to the other parent.

When circumstances change, it may become necessary to revisit the custody or visitation order. Examples of changing circumstances include:

  • Job change or relocation
  • Evidence of child abuse or concerns about safety
  • Changes in the child’s developmental needs
  • A child’s wish to spend more or less time with one parent
  • A parent is in violation of the custody order

File a petition with the court

The first step to modify a custody or visitation order is for the parents to try to work out their differences with the best interest of the child in mind. It’s better for all parties if changes can be made in a mutually beneficial and enforceable manner. If necessary, a contract with the new custody or visitation order can be drawn up, signed and sent for a judge’s signature. Once signed by a judge, the new plan becomes official.

If that option isn’t available, then one or both parents can file a petition with the court. It needs to be the same court that handled the original divorce and settlement. Rules on the petition varies between states, with each having different wait times and requirements that need to be met.

The court then needs to decide what is in the best interest of the child. Personal disagreements between parents are not a valid reason to change custody rights.

If your former spouse violated the previous custody or visitation order, it’s important to keep your cool. Don’t violate the order yourself, and don’t badmouth your former spouse in front of the child – courts sometimes consider a parent’s hostility when determining a new custody agreement.

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