Child custody can be an emotional issue for everyone involved, especially if circumstances arise that warrant a modification. However, once an order has been issued by the court, you may be wondering whether you can change a child custody agreement, and the steps that must be taken in order to do so. It’s important to understand that a judge will only grant a child custody modification if there has been a significant change in circumstances since the previous order was issued — and the change is in the best interests of the child.
What is a Child Custody Agreement?
A child custody agreement, also often referred to as a “parenting plan,” is a document that establishes physical and legal custody of a child. It also outlines parenting time schedules and decision-making when the child’s parents are divorced or do not live together. In addition, a custody agreement specifies details such as the days of the week, holidays, and school vacations the child gets to spend with each parent — as well as the child’s education, religious instruction, and healthcare.
Once an agreement has been reached regarding these matters, the document is signed by both parents. After it has been reviewed and signed by the judge, it becomes legally binding. This means that neither parent is permitted to make changes unilaterally without court approval, and the terms can be enforced by a judge. It’s essential to be aware that child custody agreements entered into verbally are not enforceable by a court under California law.
How Can a Child Custody Agreement Be Modified?
There are a few ways to modify a child custody agreement in California. If the co-parents are amicable and consent to the change, they may enter into a written stipulation. When the stipulation is signed by a family court judge, it becomes legally enforceable. This is typically the best way to make modifications since parents know their children’s needs best. It can also help to prevent a lengthy and costly court battle.
The second way to modify child custody is through mediation. This may be a good option if parents require assistance communicating their positions to reach an agreement. While mediation can sometimes work even when the parties are contentious, it is most productive when both parents are willing to work together to resolve their issues.
If parents are unable to reach a resolution concerning the custody modification outside of court, the dispute may be heard by a family court judge. The parent seeking the modification will need to file a “Request for Order” to ask the court to change the order currently in place. However, there must be a significant change in circumstances to justify the need for a modification.
Reasons a Court Will Modify a Child Custody Agreement
A judge will grant a child custody modification if they determine the child’s needs or family circumstances have substantially changed, and a modification would be in their best interests. The requested change must also ensure a stable environment for the child. A court will not simply award a modification because one party doesn’t like the terms of the agreement or wishes to pay less child support.
Common reasons a court might grant a child custody modification can include the following:
- The safety, health, or welfare of the child is in jeopardy
- A parent has demonstrated that they are not able to provide for the child’s needs
- A parent has a substance abuse issue
- Incarceration of one of the parents
- Significant change in financial circumstances
- There is evidence that the child has been abused or neglected
- A parent wishes to relocate for employment
- One or both parents have had changes made to their work schedules
- The child has expressed a preference to live with the other parent
Notably, the “significant change in circumstances” standard in custody cases only applies when physical or legal custody is being modified. If parents wish to change the amount of time they spend with the child, a court will look to the “best interests of the child.” In cases where only timeshare is at issue, there is no requirement to establish a significant change in circumstances has occurred.
Can a Modification Request Be Denied?
Although there can be numerous reasons a judge would modify a child custody agreement, there are several reasons a request may be rejected. For instance, if a child’s current living arrangements are in their best interests or the potential change would be detrimental to them, a judge may not allow the modification. Similarly, if a modification was only recently granted or the child’s other parent has successfully argued against the request, it may also be denied.
Typically, it is appropriate to review a child custody agreement every two and a half to three years. At these intervals, the agreement may require renegotiation as the child grows and their needs change.
Contact an Experienced Fresno Child Custody Attorney
If you’re facing a child custody issue, it’s crucial to have a knowledgeable family law attorney by your side who can protect your rights and ensure the best interests of your child are met. With more than 20 years of experience, the Law Offices of Rick D. Banks offers clients diligent representation and compassionate counsel for a wide variety of family law matters — including child custody modifications. To schedule a no obligation consultation, call (559) 272-8359.