Oct 31, 2022

Pandemic Relocations Have Wreaked Havoc on Child Custody Arrangements

Oct 31, 2022 - Family Law by |

The issue of child custody is typically an extremely emotional issue for both parents as they go through the divorce process. While the court is primarily focused on the best interests of the child, it is generally recognized that the healthiest situation, in most cases, is for both parents to be able to interact with and raise the child. Bethesda child custody attorney Brandon Bernstein can help you navigate this area with knowledge and tact. 

Maryland’s child custody laws were codified in 2020 pursuant to Maryland Rule 9-204.1. The Rule allows parents to establish a mutually-agreeable parenting plan (“Parenting Plan”) that is in the best interest of the child. The Parenting Plan typically covers legal custody, which involves decision-making for the child, and physical custody, which is the time that the child spends in the parent’s care.  

What is considered to be in the best interest of the child? A number of factors are considered, including:

  • The stability and welfare of the child.
  • The relationships the child has with siblings, parents and other individuals in the homes of the respective parents.
  • The developmental needs of the child such as cognitive growth, physical safety and emotional security.
  • The day-to-day needs of the child including education, mental and physical health and socialization.
  • The age of the child (the older the child, the more likely it is that their wishes will be considered. Typically in Maryland, children aged 16 or older will have their wishes taken  under consideration by the judge). 
  • The relationship of the parents. Can they overcome their differences and try to work together in the best interest of the child?
  • The location of the parents’ homes in relation to the child’s school and outside activities. 

A number of other factors to be considered are set forth in the Maryland law, but they all go to the question of evaluating what is in the child’s best interest. 

Once the parents agree to a Parenting Plan, it is presented to the judge. If the judge agrees, the parameters of the Parenting Plan will be included in a court order. Once the court order is entered, the Parenting Plan is enforceable. 

Change of Circumstances

Let’s assume the parents have worked together to come up with the best possible Parenting Plan for the child and it’s working well. Then, all of a sudden, something arises to make it impossible to implement the Parenting Plan. Here in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, we often see a divorced parent who is unexpectedly sent to another country with his or her job as a military person or Foreign Service officer. This often upsets the Parenting Plan and requires the family to develop an alternative plan. 

The Pandemic also wreaked havoc on many child custody arrangements. Wanting to put more distance between themselves and others, many people moved out of small city apartments to larger abodes in the countryside or at the beach. Financial insecurity due to shuttered businesses caused others to try to find cheaper lodgings, often far away from the other parent. Still, others felt they needed a better support system due to all the stresses imposed by Covid-19 and moved across the country to be closer to family and friends. Many of these moves involved divorced parents, who were then put in the position of wanting or needing to reframe their Parenting Plan.

Revising the Child Custody Arrangement

In order to revise the child custody arrangement, the parent seeking to do so must show an underlying material change in the custody arrangements. This can include:

  • The other parent interfering with court-ordered visitation
  • The other parent moving out of state
  • Inability to comply with the previous court order
  • Misuse of custody funds
  • Assault, abuse, or other violence
  • Dangerous home situations
  • Dramatic shifts in a child’s behavior

In the case of COVID-19, where a parent has moved far away for any number of reasons, there is clearly an underlying material change. The most common underlying material changes in these types of cases are: a parent interfering with court-ordered visitation (often, not maliciously but just due to changed circumstances); a parent moving out of state; and a parent’s inability (again, often not maliciously) to apply with the previous court order.

Reevaluating Child Support

During COVID, many people lost their jobs or otherwise suffered a reduction in their income and are still suffering from the effects of their financial setback. Is it possible to modify the custody order based on a change in financial circumstances? If you can prove a significant change in financial resources, it’s possible to petition the court to do so. A rule of thumb in Maryland is that an increase or decrease of more than twenty-five percent (25%) will likely be sufficient to show changed circumstances. A motion to increase or decrease child support can be filed by either parent with the court at any time. 

Steps to Modify a Custody Order

The party seeking to modify the order has the burden of proving that such a modification is in the best interest of the child. You should be aware that most judges do not look favorably on modifying custody orders, generally believing that stability is often best for the child. You should also be aware that Maryland looks at both the mother and father as the natural parents, and the law does not favor either the mother or father. 

One mistake that people often make is to verbally agree among themselves to a change in child support payment without getting the court order formally modified. Despite the best intentions, this often goes badly. Any changes should be formally handled to ensure there are no misunderstandings in the future. A Bethesda child custody lawyer is best qualified to handle this on your behalf.

Schedule a Free Initial Consultation with Bethesda Child Custody Attorney Brandon Bernstein

Finding an experienced and dedicated child custody lawyer who understands the legal and psychological issues related to child custody, and particularly reopening a custody arrangement that has been working well, is difficult. Please call 240-395-1418 or request an appointment online today.