Since custody and child support orders come from a state court, many Virginia residents believe they cannot move out of that court’s jurisdiction without violating the order. However, this is not the case.
A custody order that depends upon both parents living in the same area can present a complicated legal matter when one parent decides to relocate. However, the validity of the order itself is not jeopardized when a parent moves from one state to another.
1. Moving Out of State
Virginia custody orders do not prohibit parents from leaving the state where the order was signed. This is because Virginia has signed an agreement with most of the other states to honor custody orders across their borders. This law is called the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA).
The UCCJEA states that custody orders issued by one state are enforceable in the other 49 states (all but Massachusetts). This law enables parents to move freely across state borders, with only minor restrictions. However, while the custody orders are honored at a basic level, often they must also be adjusted for simple convenience.
If you and your co-parent have joint custody, and one parent moves to a different state, you should renegotiate the terms of your custody agreement. School-aged children for example need to be in their school district for at least Monday-Friday. Further, moving the child too frequently across large distances can be bad for their social and physical health.
When one parent moves out of state, the child is generally given a “home” school district towards which all subsequent decisions are oriented. Further, the parent outside of this “home” school district should generally expect to lose significant visitation time.
Where will my child reside if I move?
If you share custody of your child with your co-parent, and you can’t decide among yourselves, the court will typically decide which parent the child remains with. In this case, the judge will decide based solely on the child’s best interests. To the court, the interests of the parent are less important than the well-being of the child.
The “best interest” test, however, is subjective. The court may consider many different factors, such as school district quality, distance from other relatives, economic conditions, etc.
If my co-parent moves, will I lose my child?
For parents that share custody, relocation may mean losing visitation time with your child. Consider the following example:
Frank and Mary share custody of their son, Sammy. Frank and Mary both live in the city of Metropolis so Sammy spends half a week with Frank and half with Mary. Mary gets a job in Far County, USA . The Metropolis county court determines it is in Sammy’s best interest to go with Mary to Far County. This is because Sammy would have better access to education and a higher standard of living there. For Frank, this means that Sammy cannot live with him for half of each week, since Far County is so far away. Further, he may have to travel to Far just to see his son.
In the example case above, the court decided that Sammy would have a better quality of life by living with Mary, and as a result of that decision Frank would lose visitation time. However, Virginia law also provides a few defenses for parents such as Frank in this situation.
What laws prevent me from losing my child in this situation?
The “best interest” test is designed to consider the child’s needs, not the parent’s. If it is against the child’s best interest to remain living with you, you will likely lose joint custody of your child. However, courts also tend to modify custody agreements if one parent moves far away.
A modified custody agreement in this situation may include longer summertime visitation, or more weekends in a year. Typically, a court will try to even out the visitation time for parents that shared joint custody before a relocation.
Additionally, in Virginia, the parent intending to relocate must give 30-day written notice to the other parent. If your co-parent moves away without giving you written notice, they are likely in contempt of court.
2. What about Child Support?
The UCCJEA only pertains to custody orders, not child support. Instead, the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) enables parents to enforce child support agreements, even if the parents live in different states.
UIFSA creates several pathways for a parent to enforce their child support agreement. However, to use these pathways the child support agreement must be a formal, binding child support agreement. Families that create informal, out-of-court child support agreements cannot enforce using UIFSA.
This means that if the original child support agreement was decreed in a Virginia court, the owing parent cannot simply relocate out-of-state to avoid paying.
The parent who is owed the money can also choose to file for an enforcement action in either their home court, or the in the court of the jurisdiction where the other parent lives.
3. My co-parent moved out of a state and I can’t find them!
The UCCJEA makes custody orders enforceable in all states (except Massachusetts). This law was enacted to prevent non-custodial parents from kidnapping their child and moving to another state where there was no binding custody order.
For example, if a Virginia court granted you sole custody of your child, your co-parent cannot take your child to Maryland without your consent. Doing so would be parental kidnapping, which is illegal.
If your co-parent kidnaps your child and goes to another state, you should consider calling the police.
For Child Support
If you cannot find your co-parent to file an enforcement action under UIFSA, you may still have other options available to you.
If you know your co-parent’s employer, you can forward the employer a copy of the child support order. The employer may withhold wages from the other parent’s paycheck to satisfy their child support obligations. Since this involves a garnishment, you may want to hire an attorney to help you with that process.
If you do not know the whereabouts of your debting co-parent or their employer, you should see a family attorney to discuss other options.
4. Protecting your Orders
The first step towards protecting your rights is to hire an attorney. The custody and child support orders need to be sanctioned by the court for either UCCJEA or UIFSA to protect them across state borders.
An experienced family law attorney can ease the intensity of custody disputes and child support collection. Without an attorney to help you navigate the choppy waters of family law, you could end up in contempt of court or guilty of parental kidnapping.
Sharing custody of your children will not prevent you from moving to another state. However, any potential move may trigger a number of legal consequences that you need to prepare for.
To help ease the process and make sure all your rights are protected, you should hire an experienced family lawyer.