A Move Away case is one where a parent seeks to relocate to some other geographic area with a child they share with a parent who will remain local. Recently, there has been a dramatic increase in requests for consultations and representation in move-away cases. Some of the requests are due to the simple desire to leave California and reside in another state. Others have job opportunities in another state, or would like to be closer to family. We’ve also received requests from parents who would like to oppose the move-away request by the other parent. Whatever the case may be, understanding the intricacies and legalities of move-away cases is paramount to prevailing in such a case and often that is concurrently doing what is best for the child.
What is a move-away case?
A move-away is a particular type of custody case where two parents have a dispute or disagreement about what's going to happen with their kid(s) when either parent is going to relocate and there is an existing custodial arrangement. For example, they've got a schedule, maybe the parties have been separated for a couple years, or even a few months, but they have an existing de facto or status quo custodial relationship. The arrangement, or custodial relationship, could be 50/50, it could be 80/20. Or it may not be a percentage of time, but something like a set number of days during the week, and alternating weekends. When the kids are typically younger in age it is optimal, from a psychological developmental perspective, for a shared arrangement to grant more time to the parent who has more capability to be home and care for them (if such a circumstance exists).
Whatever the very legitimate and appropriate reason for the existing arrangements, whether by court order or not, the court will make a decision, or the parties have made a decision, that the existing arrangement is in the best interest of the child. A move-away case is a significant undertaking that happens with some frequency--And that frequency is increasing with today’s societal mobility, economic uncertainty, the ability to find more “virtual” employment opportunities, new relationships being formed from long distance, and ever changing migration patterns.
There is an abundance of law from the state of California, that relates to how the court should handle these cases, so that they're handled consistently the same. Yet the tactics and strategies exist that increase the probability of success, whether seeking to relocate with the child(ren), or opposing such a move.
How does a move-away case differ from a visitation case?
Custody time (also called “time-share”) is a plan for how the parents will share time with the children. This may also be referred to as “custody time” or “visitation” or the like. It is a shorthand way to refer to the amount of time a child is with each respective parent. Such court orders vary, depending on the best interest of the children, the situation of the parents, and other factors. If the case is more about minimal schedule changes, it's not a custody case. It's what we call a time-share type case. These cases are typically easier to resolve because we're not talking about a dramatic change in a custodial arrangement.
What many parents fail to understand…
The foundation for every custodial arrangement is what is in the best interest of the children, which includes relocation. So often, parents talk about “my time,” and they use the word “my kids”. They assert that they are entitled to “their rights”. Those parents are incorrect, and will face tremendous challenges if they are involved in litigation. Custody matters will always be about what's best for the children. The law starts from a presumption that frequent and continuous contact with both parents is what is best for the children. Many people confuse that to be a presumption that this naturally equates to a 50/50 arrangement. This is simply not true. There are so many factors involved in determining what is best for the child, outside of the parents’ opinions. The decision needs to be carefully made by the court in order to avoid having detrimental effect on the children, or impede the other parent's ongoing relationship and access to the child.
Some things courts will consider when determining move-away requests:
- Which parent (if either) has an actual, or de facto, primary custodial relationship prior to the requested move
- The good faith reason for the move (ex. job opportunity) -not designed to simply get away form the ex spouse (this is in turn mitigated if there is a history of Domestic Violence)
- Distance of the move being considered/requested and the logistical issues raised include travel time, cost, etc.
- The child’s age can be a large factor in the judge’s decision as it may be more difficult for younger children who haven’t had proper time to develop parent/child relationships-or older children who while more physiologically and psychologically developed and bonded have concurrently formed strong bonds with friends, schools, extended family, etc.
- Any history of violence within the household(s)
- The current and historical relationship between the parents
- Ability to maintain proper medical treatment at both locations
- The parents’ ability to Co-Parent or a lack of willingness to do so
- The “best interest” of the child
- The child’s preference and feelings about the move (depending upon the age)
- An overall assessment of the “detriment” of the move. This issue was given overriding importance in the most recent California Supreme court case on this subject. In such cases, even where a permanent custody order is in place, the custodial parent’s right to relocate with a child remains subject to the changed circumstance rule. (In re Marriage of LaMusga (2004) 32 Cal.4th 1072) 1088-1089 (LaMusga).
It is important to note the individual elements referenced above are not necessarily equal, nor determinative. The court will look at the totality of the circumstances in assessing the best interest and detriment.
Here in Southern California, a classic example of a move-away could be any distance greater than 30 miles, say Orange County to Riverside County. While this doesn’t seem like a huge distance, commute time needs to be taken into consideration. The freeways are often heavy with traffic and while the distance isn’t tremendous, the time it takes to travel between the two areas could frequently be over two hours on any given weekday. The commute is going to impede a parent from being able to spend enough quality time with the children. More importantly, how is that drive going to affect that child? Is it going to affect the ability of a parent to pick up on Friday evening? This kind of move would also potentially mean a change in school districts and various other factors.
Here’s where it gets complicated…
Once the relocation is defined as a move-away, things can get really, really complicated. Sometimes the status quo may not contain a court order that grants parents the ability to relocate. Some attorneys who craft judgments (and some people without attorneys) don't put all of the necessary language outlined in their judgments into their court orders, relative to custody. As is such, it may be possible that a parent could move and then change visitation later on. It's also possible that doing so could have negative consequences. This is one reason why it is critical that you have a discussion with a competent family law attorney to talk about your options, in your case.
What if there isn’t a court order in place for custody?
The following is a hypothetical situation: Two parents are unmarried and they're already living apart. There is no court order in place for custody of their child. One parent decides that they want to relocate with their child. They decide that they're going to go ahead and move to New York without consulting an attorney.
Guess what is likely to happen in this instance.... The other parent (more likely than not) is going to run into court and ask for an emergency order to have that parent, either not relocate with the child or immediately return the child. The parent who has already moved to New York, has probably settled in, secured employment and has started their new life. However, the court can effectively change the custodial arrangement because the first parent acted improperly and failed to do things the right way.
It's imperative to get a plan in place and follow the plan. The commonly used colloquialism that sometimes “It’s better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission” may work--or may lead to disastrous consequences.
How does a parent looking to move away get permission if they need it?
First, they will need to create a paper trail and reach out to the other party stating intent to move. Ask them what their thoughts are on the matter. It may be received well, it may not. Regardless, communicating the intent, (or possible intent,) in writing is always the first step. If they don't ask and just rush to court, then the court is going to think badly of that person for not asking or trying to work it out with the other parent. This is true whether the parents have court orders or not. Someone who is still in an intact relationship and simply takes off in the middle of the night with the child to a far away place is equally subject to an adverse consequence. While a history of Domestic Violence may mitigate this, it may not eliminate it.
A key point to keep in mind is that the court has no authority to tell a parent that they cannot move. Every adult in the United States has an absolute, unrestricted right to travel. The government cannot say that a parent can't move; that they have to stay here and take care of the children. In fact, what the court does when they engage in a move-away, is start with the presumption that the move is happening. They make orders based upon that expectation. The order will either be that the children move with the parent who is relocating, or that they stay with the non-moving parent. Then arrangements for visitation will be made accordingly.
Move-away cases are not a quick and easy process
Whether or not there is a custody order in place, a plan is needed. After step one, it might be time to file the move-away request with the court. If it is a full on move-away case, it's probably going to take quite some time to get the hearing on it and get it done. That means going to court, certainly doing mediation at court, possibly doing a custodial evaluation, setting the matter for an evidentiary hearing with witnesses and cross examination, dealing with cancellations and postponements that are rabid in the court system, particularly with COVID, and finally, having the hearing and getting a court ruling. And even if the parties get a court ruling, thee law of California mandates that the parent is not allowed to move for 30 days after that ruling. This can really drag out and parents really need to plan for the long haul.
How long does it take to resolve a move-away case?
This depends on the courthouse. If the case is being processed within the public court system, then parents at the mercy of the court. There may be shutdowns because of COVID. It may also take awhile if a psychological evaluation, referred to as a “730 Evaluation," is required. There may be a trial set for three days on a move-away case, and then some other case bumps it, and it gets postponed for another two or three months. A short time period might be six to nine months, while a long time period might be a year and a half or more, because of how the legal system works. This is why it is important to get started with the process as soon the parent thinks that they will be moving. Parents should always make a plan and seek legal counsel before they accept a job out of state, buy plane tickets, or hire movers. Then again, bad advice can set you back both in time and in the ultimate likelihood of success.
No two move-away cases are alike...
Please remember, every move-away case, like every custody case, is different. There are unique aspects of each and every one. The one thing that always remains the same is that ultimately, this is about what's best for the children. If the parents have a good co parenting arrangement, that can serve as a basic foundation for resolving things amicably. However, parents should only do so after consulting with competent counsel.
If you are contemplating a move and want to do things the right way, please reach out to us as soon as possible. Our team has extensive experience with move-away cases and we can help you plan for this impactful life change in a way that keeps your children the priority and offers the best possible outcome for your family.
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