Child Custody and Relocation Laws in Maryland

Learn how Maryland courts handle custody and visitation disputes when a parent wants to relocate with underage children.

Eleanor Roosevelt once commented that with freedom comes responsibility, a sentiment that divorced or separated parents can truly appreciate. With the end of a relationship comes new freedom to move on to greener pastures, but for parents, that doesn’t necessarily translate to the ability to physically move away for, say, a new job or love interest. Parents who want to move (“relocate”) with children must first clear some legal hurdles.

What happens if a parent wants to relocate with the children?

Parents have a constitutional right to move with their children, provided they have the other parent’s permission or a court order. Unlike many other states, Maryland has detailed laws that outline the steps a relocating parent must take before moving away with children, regardless of whether the move will be within the state or outside of it. The starting point is giving the non-relocating parent and the family court written notice of the move at least 90 days in advance. There are two exceptions to this rule:

  • If the relocating parent can show the court that providing notice would expose the child or the relocating parent to abuse, then a judge will waive the notice requirement and take measures to protect the relocating parent and child while safeguarding the rights of the non-relocating parent.
  • If the relocating parent must move in less than 90 days for financial reasons or other extenuating circumstances, and the relocating parent still provides as much notice as possible, the court won’t hold the shortened notice against the relocating parent.

The court has the right to say what the notice should say, but as a starting point, it’s wise to include the new address, the new phone number (if known), and the reason for the move. Parents who want to move should check with their local courthouse to see if the clerk of court has a special notice form to use for relocation requests.

It’s not enough to toss a notice in the regular United States mail and address it to the other parent. The relocating parent must send it by certified mail, return receipt requested.

If the non-moving parent receives the notice and agrees to the move, the parents should submit written terms of their agreement to the court.

When the non-relocating parent gets the notice, the clock begins to tick, and that parent has 20 days to go to court and file a petition asking the judge to block the move. When the court gets the petition, the judge will set an expedited (meaning, as soon as possible) date for a hearing. The hearing is like a mini-trial in that the court will listen to testimony and consider other evidence about whether the move is in the child’s best interests.

Don’t move away with your kids when your ex disagrees and the court hasn’t ruled yet. Consult a lawyer first.

How do judges decide whether to allow relocation?

When a court first decides how to divide custody and visitation, it must look at a list of factors to decide how best to serve the child’s best interests. If an initial custody and visitation order is in place, it can’t be changed unless there’s been a “material” (major) change in the child’s life. If a relocating parent asks to move far enough away that the non-relocating parent’s visitation rights are compromised, that’s considered a material change, and a judge has the authority to decide whether to change the existing order by either permitting or disallowing the children to move.

At the hearing, both parents can make arguments about what’s best for the child. Neither party has the burden of proof; the court will simply decide whether the move is best for the child. There are no hard and fast rules other than the court will always rule in favor of what’s best for a child and evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis. To decide whether a move is in a child’s best interests, a judge will look at some or all of the following factors, which are laid out in different Maryland cases:

  • whether each parent is fit and adaptable enough to take care of the child
  • the child’s wishes, if the child is old enough to express a mature opinion
  • each parent’s wishes
  • the age, health, and gender of the child
  • the child’s physical, spiritual, and moral well-being
  • whether the move is intended to interfere with the other parent’s visitation rights
  • whether the move has the effect of interfering with the other parent’s visitation rights
  • the environment and surroundings where the child is being raised
  • the character and reputation of the parents
  • the quality of the child’s relationship with each parent
  • whether there’s any history of domestic violence or abuse
  • whether there’s a history of abandonment
  • whether the parents have any previous agreements about custody or visitation
  • how the child will be influenced in each parent’s home, and
  • any other factor bearing on the child’s best interests.

This is a non-exhaustive list, meaning that the judge can look at any combination of facts that reveal the child’s best interests. The courts will not discriminate based on the gender of either parent. There is no preference given to a mother or a father, or vice-versa.

How have Maryland courts decided relocation cases in the past?

In an important relocation decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals considered the case of a divorced couple who were the parents of two children. The final divorce order gave the parents joint custody, but provided that the kids would mostly live with their mother. The father was given visitation every Tuesday night through Wednesday night and every other weekend.

A few years later, the mother married an officer in the United States military and asked to change the custody order by taking the children to San Antonio, Texas, where her new husband was going to be posted. The father, who had a strong and close relationship with the children, filed a petition objecting to the move.

At the hearing, the father presented evidence that the mother’s new husband had a drug problem and that the mother was trying to interfere with the father’s visitation and to exclude the father from the kids’ “new family.” The Court of Appeals ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence to make a sound decision, and told the family court to hold another hearing to gather more information about whether the move would disrupt the children’s daily lives and relationships with friends and extended family.

Next steps?

If you or your ex have custody or visitation rights and want to relocate with your children, you should contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney to assess your situation, advise you about your rights and obligations, and represent you in court.

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