Child Custody and Relocation Laws in D.C.

Understanding how one parent’s relocation can affect custody after a divorce.

In our mobile society, it’s rare for a child to live in the same home from birth until adulthood. This is especially true for children of divorced or separated parents. Once a marriage ends, one parent may want to move away and start a new life with a new spouse or new job, which will make sharing custody complicated. In certain situations, a parent may risk losing custody altogether by relocating out of state. Other times, the non-moving parent may fear losing contact with a child if the custodial parent is allowed to move with the child. Learn more about issues to consider if you or your ex is planning to relocate.

Child Custody Basics in DC

When parents separate or divorce, a court will need to issue an order setting custody, child support, and parent time. If parents are able to agree on custody, they can work out their own agreements on custody, subject to a judge’s approval. When parents can’t agree on custody, a judge will determine the custody arrangement that serves the child’s best interests.

Custody arrangements are as varied as the families who enter into them. For example, your custody order may grant joint physical custody (where the child resides) and sole legal custody (the right to make decisions on the child’s behalf). Alternatively, one parent may have both sole physical and legal custody. Even if parents share custody, one parent is still named the primary custodial parent. The custodial parent usually has the final say on decisions regarding the child when parents can’t agree.

Does One Parent Have an Advantage in Relocation Proceedings?

Generally, there is a preference for stability in relocation proceedings. In other words, the primary custodial parent has an advantage because there must be good reasons for removing a child from their primary caretaker. However, a child’s best interest is the deciding factor in any custody case.

For example, in one DC case, a judge allowed the child’s mother (custodial parent) to relocate with the child to Virginia. The child’s father objected to the move because it would reduce his visitation with the child and remove the child from where she’d grown up. The court allowed the move because the child would be closer to her extended family and could attend a school owned by her aunt. Ultimately, the move would serve the child’s best interests.

How Does a Court Determine a Child’s Best Interests?

Each parent will have the opportunity to testify and present evidence at a relocation proceeding. You should come prepared to a relocation hearing with any evidence that shows how a relocation would benefit or negatively impact your child, depending on which side you’re on. Specifically, a judge will consider the following factors when deciding whether custody should be adjusted based on one parent’s relocation:

  • the relationship between the child’s parents
  • the child’s adjustment to the school, home and community in present location
  • each parent’s physical and emotional health
  • the potential disruption of child’s schooling by relocation
  • the geographical proximity of the proposed relocation
  • each parent’s prior involvement in the child’s life
  • each parent’s employment demands
  • the sincerity of each parent’s request
  • the moving parent’s reasons for relocating, and
  • the parents’ abilities to financially support a joint custody arrangement

For example, in one DC case the court allowed the mother and child to relocate out of state closer to extended family because it would benefit the child. The mother’s request to relocate was based on the opportunity for new employment, the ability to enroll the child in a private school free of cost (school was owned by mother's sister), and the chance to be closer to family. Because the move would benefit the child in several ways, the court allowed mother and daughter to relocate.

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