How to Change a Child Custody Decision

Two Methods:Changing Child Custody by AgreementFiling a Motion to Modify

When a judge issues a custody order, it reflects the needs of the parents and the best interests of the child – at the time. However, as the years pass, aspects of your life invariably change. Sometimes these changes are perfectly reasonable. For example, maybe your child has activities that conflict with the visitation schedule, or you started a new job with a different schedule. Whatever the reason, courts are generally inclined to change a child custody decision if both parents are in agreement that the change should be made. Absent agreement, a judge still may change a child custody decision if you can prove the change is in your child's best interests.[1][2]

Method 1
Changing Child Custody by Agreement

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    Talk to the other parent. If you are on good terms with the other parent, work together to adjust the parenting plan so that it suits both of your needs and the needs of your child.
    • Child custody decisions typically need to be modified every two or three years anyway as the child grows.[3] Two parents who are able to come to an agreement rationally will have a much easier time co-parenting their child.
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    Search for forms. Most jurisdictions have forms that are pre-approved by the courts to file a joint motion to modify custody.[4][5][6]
    • If you can't find forms online, you can call the clerk's office and find out if they have forms available. Be sure you have all the documents you'll need to file your motion.[7]
    • Even though you and the other parent may agree to a change, it won't become legally binding unless you file a motion with the court and get a new order incorporating that change.[8]
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    Fill out the form for a joint motion. The form requires information about the original child custody decision, why it isn't working, and how you propose to change it.
    • In addition to your joint motion form, the court may require other forms such as information sheets or attachments. If you found the form online, the packet you downloaded probably included any other forms you needed.[9]
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    File your joint motion. You must file your joint motion in the court where the original custody decision was entered.[10]
    • Some courts don't charge a fee if you're filing a joint motion or motion by stipulation.[11] If you do have to pay a fee to file your motion, typically under $100. If you can't afford the fee, ask the clerk for a fee waiver application. Provided you meet the court's income guidelines, you won't have to pay any filing fees for your case.[12]
    • The clerk will stamp your documents "filed" and give the copies back to you.[13]
    • If you're expected to appear in court, the clerk will let you know when your hearing is scheduled.[14] Otherwise, he or she will let you know when you can expect the order to be entered.
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    Attend your hearing. In some jurisdictions, the judge will want to talk to you and the other parent before approving your joint motion.
    • At your hearing, you typically will need to bring a copy of your proposed parenting plan and a draft of the judge's order you want entered. Forms for the judge's order typically are available online or at the clerk's office.[15]
    • In many courts, if you want to make an informal change to your custody order by agreement a formal hearing isn't necessary.[16]
    • If you are required to appear in court, it typically is because the judge wants to confirm that the two of you are in agreement, that neither of you were manipulated or coerced into agreeing on the change, and that you believe it is in the best interests of your child.

Method 2
Filing a Motion to Modify

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    Consider working with a counselor or mediator. If you don't get along with the other parent, a neutral third party may be able to help the two of you come to an agreement.
    • You can check with the family court clerk to get a list of counselors or mediators that are approved by the court for dealing with child custody issues.
    • If you and the other parent aren't able to come to an agreement, you'll have to file a motion and ask the judge to modify the child custody decision against the other parent's wishes.[17]
    • Keep in mind that judges don't like to make changes to a child's life and surroundings unless there is a very good reason to do so. Therefore, absent something serious it can be incredibly difficult to get a judge to agree to modify custody when the other parent disagrees.[18]
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    Search for forms. Many courts have forms available that you can use to file a motion to modify a child custody decision.[19][20]
    • In addition to the motion, you probably will need a number of other documents to complete the filing process. Even if you can't find a form for the motion, you probably can find many of these other forms.
    • For example, you probably need a notice or certificate of service that tells the court you've delivered the documents to the other parent. This document has the exact same format for every case filed in that court.
    • If you have a proposed parenting plan you'd like the judge to approve, you can present it using the same worksheets or documents that are used for an initial child custody petition.
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    Gather information. Along with your motion, you must submit documents that support the reasons you want the court to change the original child custody decision.
    • You also should get a copy of the original child custody order, which you may need to attach to your motion.
    • You need documents that show there has been a significant change of circumstances since the original order was entered, and that these circumstances justify a modification of the order.[21]
    • For example, suppose you recently were promoted at work and have different hours as a result. While the original order required you to pick up your child at noon on Friday for weekend visitation, this is no longer possible with your new work schedule.
    • To prove the change in circumstances in the example, you might get a letter from your supervisor at work that describes your promotion and the new hours you're required to work.
    • In addition to proving the change in circumstances, you must generally demonstrate that modification of the order is in your child's best interests.[22]
    • The original order set forth the amount of time with each parent that the court determined to be in the child's best interests. If, for example, the changed circumstances limit the amount of time you have to spend with your child, judges typically will consider a modification of the original order to be in your child's best interests.[23]
    • As you're gathering supporting documents, keep in mind that courts value consistency in child custody and parenting plans. You'll have a much more difficult time convincing a judge to modify an order if it was only entered a few months or a year ago. If it was entered several years ago, on the other hand, the judge may be more open to changing it.[24]
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    Consider consulting an attorney. Especially if you anticipate the other parent will contest your motion, help from an experienced family law attorney may increase the likelihood that the judge grants your motion.
    • Legal aid offices or family law clinics may be able to help you for free or reduced fees if you're concerned about your ability to afford attorney's fees.
    • You can hire a lawyer either to represent you for the entire proceeding, or to do limited work for you such as drafting your motion or reviewing a motion you've already drafted yourself. This is referred to as "limited scope representation" and typically is less expensive than hiring an attorney to represent you for the entirety of the case.[25]
    • Keep in mind that in some jurisdictions, the burden of proof you must meet to get the judge to modify the original order may change depending on the type of modification you want. An attorney can help you with this and make sure you have the evidence you need.[26]
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    Draft your motion. Once you have all of your information and supporting documents together, you're ready to draft the document that will present your argument to the judge.
    • If you weren't able to find a form, you might ask the clerk if you can look at motions to modify that were filed for other cases heard in the same court. You can use those motions as guides, but be careful not to follow the language exactly – you'll want to adapt it to fit your case.
    • You will need to tell the judge information about yourself, the other parent, the child, and the original child custody order – including when that order was entered. Then you'll need to explain the circumstances that have caused you to request that order be modified.[27]
    • When explaining your reasons, be specific and provide as many details as possible. If you have documents that back up your claims, make sure you reference them in your motion and include copies with your motion as exhibits when you file.
    • You may be required to fill out a proposed parenting plan similar to the one you had to fill out when the judge made the original child custody decision. Complete this plan to reflect the changes you want the judge to approve.[28]
    • When you've finished your motion, gather it together with all other paperwork you plan to file and make at least two copies. The clerk will keep the originals for the court, so you'll need at least one copy for your records and one to deliver to the other parent.[29]
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    File your motion. Generally you must file your motion with the clerk of the same court that entered the original child custody order.[30]
    • You will have to pay a fee to file your motion, generally under $100. If you can't afford the fee, you may be able to apply for a fee waiver. If you meet the court's financial qualifications your application will be approved and you won't have to pay any court costs.[31]
    • The clerk will stamp all your paperwork "filed" and give the copies back to you.[32]
    • The clerk also will schedule a date and time for your hearing. Make sure the same date and time also appears on the notice you must give to the other parent.[33]
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    Have the other parent served. The other parent must have sufficient legal notice that you've filed a motion to modify the existing child custody order.
    • You can have the forms delivered personally by a sheriff's deputy or a private process server. You also can ask anyone over the age of 18 to take the forms to the other parent.[34]
    • The easiest way to complete service is to mail the documents to the other parent using certified mail with returned receipt requested. The notification you get when he or she signs for the documents will be your proof of service to the court.
    • Typically you must file a proof of service document with the court after the papers have been delivered. If you've hired a process server, he or she will fill out and file this form for you; otherwise you must fill it out and file it yourself.[35]
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    Attend your hearing. You must attend a hearing and present your argument as to why the judge should modify the original child custody decision.
    • Keep in mind that some jurisdictions require you to attend mediation before the clerk will schedule a court hearing. If you've already tried mediation, you may be able to get out of this extra step by providing a certificate from the mediator.[36]
    • Bring your proposed parenting plan with you to the hearing, along with your evidence and any documents you've filed with the court.[37]
    • At the hearing, you will have the opportunity to explain to the judge how circumstances have changed since the order was entered and why it is in your child's best interests to modify that order.[38][39]
    • If the other parent is contesting your motion, he or she also will have the opportunity to argue why the original order should not be modified.
    • Both you and the other parent will have the opportunity to present documents in support of your argument or to call witnesses to testify on your behalf.
    • After the judge has heard both sides of the story, he or she will make a decision whether to change the custody decision.


  • If the other parent violated your existing child custody order, or if you suspect your child is in danger, you should call the police as soon as possible. After you've filed your police report, seek legal assistance to file a motion to modify the child support order if necessary.[40]

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