Missouri case examines child custody modifications

Families are more mobile than ever. Moving across the state or country is often required for a promotion or when a parent works in a specialized field. Following a divorce, moves are more complicated. A custody arrangement that worked when the parents lived across town from each other may no longer be workable following a move.

Parents that live some distance from each other may be able to make a joint custody arrangement work for young children. But when a child reaches school age, these child custody agreements often break down.

A recent Missouri Court of Appeals case discussed just this situation. During the divorce process, the mother moved to Montreal, Canada. The father continued residing in St. Louis. Missouri. At the time of the divorce, the child was two years old. A joint custody arrangement allowed each parent almost equal time with the child on a bi-weekly schedule. When the child reached school age, the mother sought to modify the custody arrangement, so that the child could attend school in Montreal.

Relocation versus custody modifications

Under Missouri law, to modify custody or support orders, a petition must be filed with the court. The court must find there is a change in the circumstances and that a modification of the prior order is needed to meet the best interests of the child.

Relocations are when the principal residence of the child will change. The relocating parent must provide written notice to the other parent of the proposed move. The non-relocating parent then has the chance to object. When the child is temporarily absent (absent for less than 90 days) it does not trigger the notice requirement.

Back to the facts of the case

The mother filed a motion to modify custody. She did not need to provide notice under the relocation requirement, because she had not moved. After hearing evidence from both of the parties, the trial court found that as the child began schooling, the bi-weekly schedule was no longer in the best interests of the child. The judge modified the custody order allowing the child to reside in Montreal during the school year.

Father did not agree and appealed the trial court decision arguing that the modification was not in the best interest of his child. The appellate court deferred to the credibility and factual determinations of the trial court and upheld the decision.

What can be taken from this case is that some custody arrangements work for a young child, but do not hold up over the years and require a return trip to court. Also, in family law cases it is important to present the strongest case possible at the trial court level, because winning on appeal is rare.

When considering a divorce, contact an experienced family law attorney to discuss child custody and support. Divorce requires tough decisions and often concessions. However, an attorney can assist in building the strongest case and assist in negotiations to reach a lasting solution.