It's common for a divorced parent to relocate, but this can create problems for the other parent, including decreased parenting time and increased visitation costs. In Vermont, a custodial parent is free to relocate without court approval, but only if the move will not substantially impair the other parent's rights and responsibilities with the child. When noncustodial parents object to a proposed move, they will need to file a motion to change custody and child support, which can be complicated.
The court doesn't use the terms custody or custodial parent because it implies that one parent can "win" the child over the other parent. Instead, courts in Vermont use the phrase "parental rights and responsibilities," which means physical custody. The parent awarded physical custody will determine where the child lives and attends school and will make decisions regarding medical care. This parent is also responsible for informing the other parent of important, major changes to the child's wellbeing.
A custodial parent is free to relocate without court approval if the relocation doesn't significantly impair the noncustodial parent's rights and responsibilities. In other words, if the move will greatly reduce the other parent's visitation, or if it will affect the other parent's relationship with the child in a negative way, the nonmoving parent can object to the relocation and ask the court to change the custody arrangement.
Noncustodial parents who ask for a custody modification must show a substantial and unanticipated change of circumstances since the entry of the last order and that the proposed change to custody is in the child's best interest. During the court hearing on the matter, both parents can present documents and testimony from a variety of witnesses, including friends, family, counselors, and even doctors who may provide facts or opinions in support of their claims.
It's important to understand that the court won't give preference to one parent over the other because of the parent or child's gender or either parent's financial resources. It will evaluate the child's best interests using a specific set of factors, including:
In some states, courts require the custodial parent to give a justification for the proposed relocation, but that isn't the case in Vermont. Modifying custody is challenging, so a noncustodial parent will face an uphill battle. In a 1992 case, parents divorced and the court awarded the mother physical custody. A few years after the divorce, both parents remarried, and the mother wanted to relocate to Iowa for law school. The father asked the court to modify custody because a move would reduce his visitation and damage his relationship with the child. The court denied the father's motion stating that any sincere, good-faith reason for relocation is acceptable, and the father did not prove that it was in the child's best interest to change custody.
The court understands that a custodial parent's interest in making decisions for the family's benefit and the noncustodial parent's interest in maintaining a close bond with the child often clash. To prevent unreasonable changes in custody, the standards are very strict.
The nonmoving parent who is proposing a change to the custody arrangement must show that there has been a real, substantial, and unanticipated change of circumstances since the court entered the last order. A proposed relocation is not enough, by itself, to meet this requirement. The parent will need to demonstrate that the relocation is also detrimental to the child's well-being. If the parent can't meet these requirements, the court won't consider a custody modification.
In a 2005 case, divorced parents shared joint custody of their child. The child lived equally in both homes, and the father utilized all his parenting time. After the mother remarried and lost her job, she proposed a permanent out-of-state move. The father disagreed, so he asked the court to modify custody. Even though the father could show that a move would substantially impair his relationship with the child, the court would not evaluate a possible modification in custody because the father failed to show a change of circumstances beyond the proposed relocation.
Relocation cases are complicated. Not only do these situations involve changing residences and visitation schedules, you may also need to address modification of custody, which is difficult. If you want to relocate, or you object to a move, you should seek assistance from an experienced family law attorney.