Sharing physical and legal custody of a child can be a challenging task with the opportunity for many disputes between parents. Before you begin your custody arrangement, you should hammer out the specifics of how the arrangement will practically work. Which days will the child live where? When can you take your child on vacation? When can each parent make decisions about the child’s healthcare?
To reduce conflict and make sure that things run smoothly for the child, Missouri courts require unmarried parents to have a written parenting plan. This highly detailed plan will address many aspects of custody, including:
- Physical custody schedules
- Legal custody to address how major decisions for the child will be made
- Holiday and vacation schedules
- The child’s transportation
- How the parents will exchange physical custody of the child
- How each parent will address the child’s special needs
- When and how the other parent can contact the child
- Whether a parent can relocate with the child
- Whether a parent needs consent to take the child on an out-of-state trip
- What happens when one parent fails to comply with the plan
- When parents have the right to make major or everyday decisions for the child
- How parents should communicate with each other about the child
- How parents will handle health and child care expenses
This parenting plan serves as a roadmap for the parents to follow to help them share custody with as few hiccups as possible.
As we all know, things can change over time or sometimes, all at once. Your child may take up a new sport that completely changes their schedule. You may start a new job that completely changes your schedule. The other parent may remarry and decide to spend less time with the child or may relocate to a different state. These are only some of many, many situations that may make it impossible to follow the parenting plan.
While parents may make slight or temporary adjustments to their schedules according to the parenting plan, major changes to the custody arrangement should be formally done through the family courts. If you do not officially modify the court order, you risk allegations of noncompliance and enforcement efforts of your child’s other parent. It is best to discuss the possibility of a parenting plan modification with an experienced divorce attorney who understands the process.
1. Working Together to Reach an Agreement
In many situations, both parents will recognize the need for a modification of the parenting plan. It may be clear that the plan you devised when your child was two-years-old is no longer the best arrangement now that your child is 12. If one parent moves too far for a regular custody exchange, it should be obvious that you will need to adjust their visitation schedule.
While you may agree that changes are necessary, it can be difficult to nail down the details of a new parenting plan. It can be highly beneficial to have the support and advice of an attorney who can help guide you through the process of drafting your new plan. An attorney can also represent you during mediation sessions if necessary for you to reach an agreement about all the small but necessary details.
If you and the other parent are able to draft a new mutually agreeable parenting plan, the court will review it to make sure the arrangement is in the best interests of the child. If so, the court can formally modify your custody order and parenting plan.
2. When You May Need to Go to Court
If the other parent opposes a modification of your parenting plan, you can petition the court to modify the plan anyway. The law recognizes that children need stability and should not have their schedules constantly changed based on the whims of their parents. For this reason, the parent requesting the changes has the burden of proving the following:
- That a substantial and continuous change in circumstances occurred, and
- The modification is necessary to serve the best interests of the child
This can be challenging, especially if the other parent works to challenge your assertions. You should have a lawyer who is ready to represent you in court if mediation and other dispute resolution methods do not work.
The Best Interests of the Child
The best interest of a child is a legal standard used across the country. What constitutes a child’s best interest is governed by Missouri Statute Section 452.375. In total, there are eight factors the court must consider when determining a child’s best interest. These factors include:
- The wishes of the child’s parents as to custody and the proposed parenting plan submitted by both parties;
- The needs of the child for a frequent, continuing and meaningful relationship with both parents and the ability and willingness of parents to actively perform their functions as mother and father for the needs of the child;
- The interaction and interrelationship of the child with parents, siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interests;
- Which parent is more likely to allow the child frequent, continuing and meaningful contact with the other parent;
- The child’s adjustment to the child’s home, school, and community;
- The mental and physical health of all individuals involved, including any history of abuse of any individuals involved. If the court finds that a pattern of domestic violence as defined in section 455.010 has occurred, and, if the court also finds that awarding custody to the abusive parent is in the best interest of the child, then the court shall enter written findings of fact and conclusions of law. Custody and visitation rights shall be ordered in a manner that best protects the child and any other child or children for whom the parent has custodial or visitation rights, and the parent or other family or household member who is the victim of domestic violence from any further harm;
- The intention of either parent to relocate the principal residence of the child; and
- The wishes of a child as to the child’s custodian. The fact that a parent sends his or her child or children to a home school, as defined in section 167.031, shall not be the sole factor that a court considers in determining custody of such child or children.
While these factors should guide the court, the judge will ultimately determine how they apply to your specific case. This gives the judge overseeing your case substantial leeway when it comes to modifying the terms of a parenting plan.
3. Circumstances Under Which Custody May Be Modified
The court will not modify your custody order unless you can convince them of why the change is needed. However, the court can modify the custody order at any time until your children turn 18 if you can prove the change in circumstance. While each case is unique, the court may modify the custody order for one or more of the following reasons.
a) Physical Relocation
Although this isn’t the most valid reason for changing custody, the court can still consider physical relocation when delivering the verdict. If the custodial parent wants to relocate to a different city, state, or country, the non-custodial parent can request the court to modify the child custody order.
It is possible to get your custody arrangement modified under the following circumstances:
- The physical relocation has a major impact on the children’s lives
- The physical relocation makes it difficult to keep the current parenting plan going
b) Substantial Change in a Parent’s Life
The court will also take into account any positive or negative change in the parent’s life. For example, a significant shift in a parent’s financial situation may warrant child custody modification. Say, if the custodial parent loses their job, the non-custodial parent can approach the court for parenting plan modification with the help of competent St. Louis divorce lawyers. That’s why it is necessary to ensure financial stability during and after your divorce.
On the other hand, if a parent overcomes substance abuse, they can request the court to grant visitation rights or change custody arrangements. Similarly, if the custodial parent wants to remarry, the non-custodial parent can approach the court for custody modification.
c) Change or Endangerment to the Children’s Lives
As the kids grow, their needs also change. If placing the child in a different environment can contribute to their growth, you can consult experienced St. Louis divorce lawyers for a potential custody modification. However, you will need to prove how the new environment is better suited to your child’s growth.
Alternatively, if your kid’s life is in danger, you can request the judge to modify the custody order. Endangerment is often a compelling reason for custody modification. Common endangerment factors include:
- If the child is being abused sexually, physically, and emotionally (verbal abuse)
- If the parent’s substance abuse endangers the life of the kids
- If the custodial parent is facing grave mental health issues like depression or extreme psychotic behavior
d) One of the Parent Is Not Cooperating
You can appeal for the custody order to be changed if your spouse isn’t cooperating. For example, if the custodial parent is not honoring your visitation rights, you can report these violations to the court with the help of knowledgeable St. Louis divorce lawyers. You will need to provide evidence to prove the custody arrangement violations. The court can also hold the parent in contempt of court if the custody arrangement was court-ordered.
However, to get the desired custody order modification, you need to consult skilled St. Louis child custody lawyers first. Make sure to discuss your case in detail so that your lawyer can help you plan the best course of action.
4. Things You Should Know Before Going to Court
While you can go to court to modify your parenting plan, it may not always be the best option. You need to understand a few things before going to court.
- Custody modifications are easy if both parents agree with the changes. However, things can take a turn for the worse where one or both parties are non-cooperative.
- You may have to wait for a year or two after the last custody order modification to apply for a new one. In most cases, the court will not grant a change within a set time frame.
- The court can modify only court-ordered custody arrangements. So, the judge can’t force the custody arrangements made between the parents outside of court. For example, if you agree to the parenting schedule during your divorce mediation, the court may not be able to force the arrangement, should your spouse disapprove.
- You need to consult professional St. Louis divorce lawyers specializing in child custody before making any decision. Each case is unique, and your lawyer can offer legal advice only after going through your case details.
5. How Much Does It Cost to Modify Parenting Plans?
The costs vary depending on the circumstances of your case. The most common factors affecting the cost of modifying parenting plans include the following:
- You have to pay court fees and other legal charges. These charges will be higher if you are filing for modification in a different county.
- You need to bear the cost of copying and serving papers.
- You need to pay your attorney. Most St. Louis child custody lawyers charge on an hourly basis. However, some lawyers may charge a flat fee.
- If you are in the low-income category, the court may waive off the entire or a part of the legal fees. You can visit the court clerk’s office to find out the details.
It is helpful to look at the costs associated with parenting plan modifications not as an expense but as an investment in your relationship with your children.
6. How an Attorney Could Simplify Parenting Plan Modification
There are numerous ways in which an attorney could assist you in modifying a parenting plan. While it is true that you are under no obligation to hire an attorney, taking on these challenges alone could prove to be challenging. Child custody and visitation issues are complex, and handling your case on your own could put you at a disadvantage. This is particularly true in cases where the other parent has legal representation.
The value of an attorney is clear in cases where the modification is contested. When taking on difficult issues like removing a child from a dangerous home or seeking permission to relocate, an attorney could help simplify the litigation process. Further, an attorney could serve as your advocate and speak with the other parent or their lawyer on your behalf. Having a third-party between the parents could serve to reduce tension or stress.
An attorney could also be invaluable in cases where the other parent is failing to comply with the terms of the parenting plan. With the right legal counsel, you could hold the other parent accountable for visitation interference and seek a necessary change to the parenting plan as a result.
Contact a St. Louis Child Custody Attorney to Learn About Your Options
Although the modification of a parenting plan is a possibility, there is no guarantee the court will agree to do so. Judges in St. Louis must act in the best interest of the child, which often means denying requested changes to the parenting plan. If you believe a modification of the parenting plan is necessary, let us serve as your advocates throughout the process.
You do not have to take on the challenge of modifying a parenting plan on your own. If you think you need a parenting plan modification or if you oppose a modification proposed by the other parent, you should consult a family law attorney at the J. Rench Law Firm in St. Louis. Call at (314) 207-0641.
This article was originally published on May 23, 2019 and updated on June 01, 2021.