Parents who win custody during divorce consider themselves victorious. Celebration is warranted but custodial parents should realize that the arrangement could be changed. A child custody order is an enforceable legal document but it is not necessarily permanent. A parent who does not win custody in divorce may request and receive modification of custody arrangements due to a change in circumstances.
An initial custody arrangement is based on the best interests of the child. Circumstances can change over time and as a result, an existing custody arrangement may no longer best serve a child. If a noncustodial parent becomes the better caregiver than the custodial parent based on factors considered during custody decisions, that parent may petition for modification of the custody order with help from a family law attorney.
When a court reevaluates a custody arrangement, it considers the ability of each parent to meet the basic needs of the child. If the custodial parent is no longer able to provide a stable living environment due to inability to keep a job or unstable personal relationships, the court will view this negatively. However, the changes must be significant and the new custody arrangement must better serve the best interests of the child.
If a child is old enough, the court may ask for his or her preferred living arrangements. Preferences expressed by a child, even one who is intelligent and mature, are not usually sole factors influencing custody modification but they may carry heavy weight. For example, if the custodial parent decides to move due to a new job opportunity, the child may prefer to stay with the noncustodial parent in order to remain in the same school and continue relationships with friends.
Decisions regarding religious upbringing typically fall under legal, not physical, custody. Religious considerations are not usually enough to modify a custody arrangement unless they affect the physical or mental health of a child in a negative way or religious needs cannot be met through the existing custody arrangement. Religion is just one aspect of a parent’s lifestyle and courts differ regarding the type and amount of lifestyle change that warrants custody modification.
In some situations, both parents may informally agree to changes to a custody order. At the request of the parents, the court will review the circumstances that led to the change, how the new custody arrangement affects the child, and how long this arrangement has been in effect. The court may decide to modify the formal custody order to reflect some or all aspects of the informal arrangement.