Whether it’s a move down the street or across the country, child relocation can turn into one of the most hotly contested topics in divorce cases.
Remarriage, job transfers or educational opportunities can spark custodial parents to request a move for their children. “It is often really difficult to relocate, especially if it is a far distance,” says Julie Hixson-Lambson, a family law attorney at Hais, Hais, Goldberger & Coyne.
In Missouri, custodial parents are required to give 60 days notice of a move by sending a letter through certified mail, along with a return receipt request, according to Rick Eisen, a family law attorney at Growe Eisen Karlen. The letter, which can be drafted with or without an attorney— but because of its complexity often requires legal aid—must contain specific information: the proposed new address, date of the move, reasons for the relocation and any parenting arrangement changes, Hixson-Lambson says. The non-custodial parent receiving the letter then has 30 days to file an objection to the relocation.
In the case of an objection, a court date will be scheduled and a judge will decide whether the move is in the best interest of the child, Eisen says. “These cases take a very long time,” Hixson- Lambson notes. “The courts just aren’t that efficient. You’ll be lucky to get a court date in six months.” Because of these delays, moves should be planned months ahead of time, she adds.
It is especially important to prepare in advance if the custodial parent foresees the relocation will be contested. The parent should gather information related to the child’s proposed new environment, such as details and photos of school districts, extracurricular activities and neighborhoods, as well as the parent’s new salary, Hixson- Lambson says. “You are trying to convince the court that this is going to be better for the child.”
Relocation decisions made by the court focus on the child’s well-being, and it is often more difficult to gain approval to move younger children. With judges making rulings on a case-by- case basis, Eisen notes. “Sometimes it can be very heart-wrenching when you are representing the non-custodial parent. But I’ve also seen it be very successful, and that’s usually when the focus is on the child as opposed to on the parents.”
When a long-distance move is approved, children commonly stay with the custodial parent during the majority of the school year and spend the summer and holidays with the other parent. Before initiating a move, parents need to consider the time court proceedings may take, the cost of traveling to the non-custodial parent’s home and the children’s feelings, Hixson-Lambson advises. With modern technology such as Skype, it may seem easier to replace daily visual and audio contact between parents and their children. “The difference is you still can’t go to music recitals and soccer games or give them hugs every day,” Eisen notes.
The best approach for parents initiating a move is to request a meeting with the other parent to discuss the plans well in advance of sending a legal letter, Eisen says. “I tell all my clients you don’t necessarily have to like your ex-spouse, but if you respect them as a parent to your child, it will make your life a lot easier.”