One thing is for certain, there is never anything certain in life. You have agreed on your child custody arrangement and things have moved along just fine until an unforeseen event occurs in your life. Life events like moving out of state, one parent becomes extremely ill or the financial situation changes for a parent, plus many, many more life-altering reasons are all reasons that life interrupts you normal routine and a new child custody agreement will need to be reached. Generally, child custody cases are never final. If both parents agree to a new custody agreement and the courts find it reasonable, then it is normally approved IF it is in the best interest of the child. The best interest of the child always controls. The courts do not care much about what is convenient for the parents if the child’s best interest isn’t first and foremost. Additionally, there are times that changing child custody agreements are not wrapped with a pretty bow and everyone is happy. Some circumstances change that are actually harming the child to stay in the current custody arrangement—a parent becomes abusive, substance abuse enters the picture, poor lifestyle choices, the list goes on and on. During these times, it is important to meet with your attorney and get things moving along as quickly as possible to avoid further physical or mental harm to your child.

One particular case, Stephanie Harris, Appellant v. Stephen Harris, Appellee (No. CA09-639, decided February 17, 2010) determined the children’s best interest was to change the custody arrangement to the appellee “who offered them hope of academic and behavioral improvement and whom the court found much more credible than appellant regarding efforts to deal with the girls ‘dismal performance.’” The court found “compelling evidence” that the minor children would be in a much better situation in Mr. Harris’ custody rather than Ms. Harris’. Although the ultimate victor in this party had overwhelming evidence and multiple occasions of blatant disregard for the initial custody agreement by the appellant, it still took the course of a nearly two-year court battle for him to convince the court he was the better custodial parent. This case further proves that the courts do not take their duty of determining the best interest of the child lightly.

In cases such as this one when parents cannot agree, some of the things a judge will consider are:

  • each parent’s stability
  • each parent’s physical and mental health
  • the child’s physical and mental health
  • the child’s relationship with siblings and extended family

The judge will consider many other factors. In the case mentioned, the courts considered the following:

  • the children’s failing grades in school;
  • the children’s behavior problems in school;
  • consistent interference in visitation by Ms. Harris;
  • Harris’ failure to show up for a show-cause hearing in 2005;
  • Harris was remarried and had a loving, stable environment to provide the children;
  • Harris had stable employment;
  • Harris maintained constant email communication with the children’s school while they were living in Atlanta with their mother;
  • Harris allowed different male companions to spend the night at her home when the minor children were present violating the divorce decree;
  • Harris failed to follow the decree’s allowance for unrestricted phone calls by Mr. Harris on a daily basis.

The list goes on and proving what Ms. Harris did wrong and Mr. Harris did right. The point is that you must at all times consider the best interest of your children, because the court will.

Parents who are able to amicably reach an agreement on their own, can simply submit a custody agreement (also called a ‘parenting plan’) to the court. Again, the judge will ensure the agreement reflects the best interest of the child. Be sure to check out next week’s blog about writing a successful parenting plan.

Child custody arrangements (even the “easy” ones) are complex and more often than not require an attorney to draw up the paperwork. If you are in need of modifying your child custody agreement, contact Kevin Hickey Law Partners today.

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