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Child Custody | Family

Reasons a Judge Will Change Child Custody

8 min read
Unbundled Legal Help

by Unbundled Legal Help

When your divorce involves children, a court order will generally provide a parenting plan and custody agreement. Whether you and your ex-spouse reached an agreement or custody was finalized by the judge, this official court order sets out your children’s custody relationships going forward. We can connect you today with a local Unbundled attorney who can recommend your best path forward.

However, a custody order isn’t permanent and can be updated depending on the child’s best interest. The custody order may work well when your child is in first grade, but it may become unworkable by the time your children enter junior high school. Also, you may find a new job that has a conflicting schedule with your ex-spouse and your child’s needs. You should discuss your agreement with the other custodial parent and reschedule visits that fit the new family circumstances. 

If you can reach an agreement and accommodate your ex-spouse’s situation, the court will not have to become involved. That will permit you to submit your new parenting plan to the court for approval without change. It is important to register your new agreement’s changes because, without the court’s approval, the new terms are not legally enforceable.

Over time, a custody order may need other kinds of adjustments, which may require formal court approval. You can request these changes through the courts. Judges routinely amend custody orders for a wide range of reasons until the child turns 18. The court’s standard for evaluation is “the best interest of the child.” The court considers any material changes to circumstances that affect the child. Here we’ll discuss a few more reasons why a judge will change the terms of child custody.  

Family Changes since the Original Order

If the children were little when your divorce was finalized, and are teenagers now, the original parenting plan probably does not work. School, extracurriculars, and other activities often require changes. Both parents should agree to update the existing order first, and then you can proceed to request approval from the court.

Parents often experience changes in their work schedules. For instance, the mother who worked in an office before her divorce may want to pursue a new career by attending nursing school. Once her career begins, the mother may be working different shifts even while the father’s schedule stays the same. Both parents can discuss a modification that better suits their present co-parenting responsibilities so that their children have adequate visitation time, access, and supervision.

While parents can make informal agreements, they would not be enforceable if either parent decides to deviate. It’s best to request a modification through the court so that both parents understand their obligations. Judges will record your changes in custody, so they retain the force of law.

Custodial Parent Relocates

When one of a child’s divorced parents decides to accept a new job or remarry and move away from the other parent, such moves do not automatically modify the original order.

When a custodial parent wants to relocate, the court may have to modify the custodial agreement. While a court cannot prohibit a custodial parent from moving out of state, there will be an impact on that parent’s role in the child’s life and how often the parent would be granted visitation. Furthermore, the court will assess the child’s relationship with the parent to see how to alter the custodial agreement to best fit the child’s best interest.

Unstable or Unfit Parent

The court expects parents to provide a stable home environment for their child, including those periods when your child travels between two homes. A parent who frequently moves, and changes jobs often or has irregular working hours can make life difficult for children. For younger children, a parent who frequently changes romantic partners can create a difficult home environment. These unstable “home” environments often impact how well a child does in school.

Judges prefer to retain child custody with a parent who has the most stable home environment. That parent can leverage the court’s preference to ask for a reduced child visitation schedule from the less-stable parent.

In a different circumstance, a parent who has been previously unstable, but has since reestablished stability can ask the court to equalize visitation schedules, and even request to be named the custodial parent. These are some of the reasons why a judge will change custody.

Changes in the Parent’s Circumstances

A parent may suffer a chronic illness or injury, which can make it impossible to care for their child. Disabling injuries and medical conditions from catastrophic illness may require the disabled parent to prove to the court they can fulfill visitation requirements despite adverse health conditions. The court may also require that the parent, despite medical conditions, can still provide a good home for the child. The judge may change the order to accommodate such physical disabilities.

If a parent becomes unemployed or encounters a serious reduction in income, that can limit their ability to care for a child and make the scheduled visits required in their parenting plan. Both parents from time to time may need to make changes to keep custody orders current and then submit those changes to the court to approve modifications as necessary.

Death of a Parent

It’s not something couples think about during their divorce, but the loss of a spouse through death does happen. In many cases, the surviving parent will receive custody, if possible, but that is not automatic. A judge must decide if a relative such as a grandparent or another relative is better suited than the surviving parent to care for the child or children. If a surviving parent is unable to care for children full time, they are usually not granted sole custody.

What if Both Parents Die?

If a deceased parent has assigned a guardian in their will, that person will take custody of the child. If not, the court will appoint a guardian. Any relative of the child can file a petition for custody. As always, the court considers the best interest of the child for guardianship.  Here are some factors that may cause a judge to change custody:

  • The child’s relationship with the relative
  • The relative’s ability to support and provide for the child’s needs
  • The wishes of the child and the last wishes of the parents
  • The child’s adjustment to home, school, etc.

After these issues are reviewed and decided, the court will proceed with an updated custody order for the child.

One Spouse Refuses To Co-Parent

In a divorce, joint custody does not mean equal time with your children. Think of joint custody as meaning that each parent has a responsibility for their children’s upbringing after the marriage legally dissolves.

Co-parenting involves contributing to decisions about a child’s education, medical care, and other issues married parents normally manage. If your spouse refuses to cooperate and fails to inform the other parent about vital information, that can lead the court to re-assign parenting rights and child access authority between parents. The court may order that the custodial parent becomes the primary parent for decision-making.

A child custody order can be modified to limit (but not eliminate) a non-cooperative parent’s access to their child.

A Parent Ignores a Court-Ordered Visitation Schedule

A court’s order typically applies to both parents equally. If your spouse fails to follow that order, you can ask the court to modify it.

This may occur because your ex-spouse refuses to stick to the visitation timeline. Perhaps your ex is taking your child on out-of-town road trips without consulting you. Or your children may be feeling distant and alienated from their siblings.

When a parent does not deliberately violate their court order, the judge can modify it at your request. With your petition, you must show how the violations constitute a notable change of circumstances that are not in the child’s best interests. The judge may hold your violating ex-spouse in contempt of court before changing the parenting plan.


Sometimes a parent can place their child in danger and not realize it. When the other parent finds out about it, the danger is apparent.  That is another example of why a judge will change your custody arrangement. The judge can also immediately limit a culpable parent’s rights to custody or even terminate their parental rights.

Situations that may endanger a child can include these factors:

  • Neglect or abuse, including verbal, emotional, psychological, physical, or sexual
  • Drug abuse,in which alcohol or other substances that can put a child in a dangerous situation
  • Child abandonment or abduction
  • Mental health issues, such as unstable behavior and hospitalizations for mental conditions
  • A sex offender living in the same residence with the parent and child
  • Immediate danger,because a parent either puts a child in a dangerous situation or fails to protect a child who is in a dangerous circumstance

Anything jeopardizing the child’s wellbeing can be considered abuse by the court. Before requesting child custody modifications, a parent must show proof. If you discover your ex creates an immediate danger to your child, get help from your local law enforcement, and ask for immediate protection. You can request an emergency order giving you immediate custody without input from the other parent. The request must be for a true emergency, such as the ones listed above.

Child Custody Modifications

Depending on the circumstances, you can consider requesting a custody modification yourself, without a lawyer. But it will be wise to consult a lawyer to learn about your options before you go to court. Unbundled Legal Help can connect you today with a local unbundled attorney to help with the parts of your custody modification that you need help with.

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