When is it Time to Modify a Custody Arrangement?

African-american father hugging his daughter while estranged mother watches from couch. Concept for custody modification.

When parents divorce or no longer live together, a child custody arrangement must be entered into that meets the best interests of their children. However, a family’s circumstances can change over the years — and as children grow older, a modification to the original child custody order may be warranted. Making changes to a custody order is not a matter that judges take lightly, and Missouri courts will look at several factors to determine whether a change should be made.

Reasons to Modify a Custody Arrangement

Since making changes to a custody arrangement can greatly impact a child’s life, there are only certain reasons a judge will allow a child custody modification. Missouri courts will grant a child custody modification if the parent asking for the change can show that there has been a change in circumstances since the original order was entered — and the existing order no longer meets the best interests of the child. Courts typically do not make modifications to custody orders for minor reasons. Rather, the change in circumstances must typically be significant enough to justify making changes to the child’s current routine.

Although the best interests of the child is always first and foremost, a judge will take a number of other factors into consideration when determining whether a custody modification should be granted, including the following:

  • The mental and physical health of the parents — In the event a parent is unable to care for the child due to their mental or physical health, a change in custody might be needed.
  • The child’s welfare — If the child would be in harm’s way by spending time with an unfit parent, a custody modification to the custody arrangement may be necessary. Critically, certain felony convictions prohibit unsupervised visitation.
  • A custodial parent’s failure to honor the visitation order — A court may grant a custody modification if the custodial parent refuses to abide by the parenting time schedule.
  • The child’s wishes — If the child is mature enough, the court will consider their preferences regarding custody.
  • A parent’s decision to relocate — If a parent decides to move out of the area, it may impact the current custody arrangement, warranting a change.

Other factors a court would consider can include a parent’s alienation of the child’s affection, the moral fitness of the parents, and the remarriage of a parent. A court must also ensure that any custody modification fulfills the child’s need to have a continuing and meaningful relationship with each parent. It should also reflect each parent’s willingness to parent the child and allow the child to foster relationships with siblings and other relatives in the child’s life.

How to Modify a Custody Arrangement

Although child custody matters aren’t always set in stone, a parent cannot simply modify an order on their own accord because they no longer agree with the arrangement. Once a child custody order is in place, neither parent can make changes to it unless they have reached an agreement, or a judge has granted a modification.

Importantly, it’s not always necessary to go to trial to modify a child custody arrangement. Parents are free to reach a settlement regarding custody modifications between themselves outside of court. Often, mediation can be helpful to help parents revise the custody arrangement and parenting plan that is in place. But even if both parents agree, any changes to the custody order must be submitted to the court in a written stipulation and signed by a judge. Without a new court order, the modification will not be legally enforceable, regardless of any oral agreement between the parents.

If a parent is requesting a modification to an existing custody arrangement, and an agreement cannot be reached outside of court, it may be necessary to file a petition in court. For contested custody modifications, the court will require the parent who is seeking the change to present evidence that shows why the modification is warranted. Depending on the reason the change is being requested, evidence shown to the court can include school records, medical documentation, or a parent’s criminal records in certain cases. Witnesses may also be brought into court who can testify for either side regarding why the modification should (or should not) be granted.

Child custody modifications should not be confused with modifications of visitation orders. A modification to a visitation order only seeks to change the parenting time schedule, not the child’s primary residence. In such cases, it only needs to be shown that the modification is in the best interests of the child — a change in circumstances does not need to be demonstrated.

Contact an Experienced Missouri Child Custody Attorney

Child custody matters can be emotional, stressful, and overwhelming. It’s best to have the representation of a knowledgeable family law attorney who can advise you regarding your options and ensure the best interests of your child are met. Divorce and family law attorney Mark A. Wortman provides skillful counsel to clients in the greater Kansas City, Missouri area for child custody issues and a broad scope of family law matters. To schedule a confidential consultation to learn how he can assist you, please contact him today online or by calling (816) 523-6100.