8 Reasons a Judge Will Change Custody

When parents separate, and there are children under the age of eighteen involved, child custody and child support orders are usually decided by the courts. This determines who the legal custodial parent is, the parenting time the other parent has, and other visitation rights. The agreed child custody order is established with the child’s wellbeing and best interests at heart. However, situations can change. As such, there are reasons to change custody if the current custody agreement no longer best serves the child, based on the current situation.

All it takes for modification of child custody is for one parent to request a change with the courts. The judge will look at the case and decide whether there are grounds for a custody change. In this article, we look at eight reasons a judge will change custody and issue the requested modification.

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1. Contempt of Court Order

When a child custody agreement is established, it is legally binding and needs to be followed by both parents. If the parent knowingly and deliberately fails to obey the decision of the courts, it is known as contempt of court. In other words, they are deliberately ignoring the terms of the current order. That is one of the main reasons to reduce child visitation. There are several examples of how a child custody agreement could be breached, including the following examples:

  • One parent denies the other parent their visitation rights.
  • Taking the child on long road trips without consulting the other parent.
  • Not returning the child on time every week.
  • Withholding the child to get child support.

In these cases, it is the parent not violating the agreement that can request a modification of child custody. If it can be proven that the breach of agreement is detrimental to the child, it will pass as grounds for a custody change and could remove the visitation rights or reduce the parenting time of the other parent. It is recommended to contact a child custody lawyer for advice.

2. The Parent’s Situation Has Changed

A change to the parent’s situation can act as grounds for custody modification, as the courts understand circumstances can change. However, for it to be accepted as a reason to change custody, the parent requesting the modification needs to prove that it is a substantial change that will impact the child’s wellbeing. For example, if the non-custodial parent develops a drug addiction or substance abuse, the custodial parent could request a petition for them to lose custody. The situation is also true in reverse with the custodial parent losing custody.

Just as negative changes to the situation can remove parental rights, positive changes can see a parent having greater visitation rights. For example, the non-custodial parent may have had issues with substance abuse at the time the original custody order was written. Family courts generally agree that the child holding a relationship with both parents is best for the child’s well-being, where safe to do so. Therefore, if they can now prove they are sober and reliable, they might be able to get a modification of child custody to gain more time with their child.

3. The Parents Have Physically Relocated

Another of the reasons a judge will change custody is if one of the parents physically relocates. For this to stand as grounds for custody modification, the move has to be one of a substantial distance. Their new location would need to make the old custody agreement impractical and impossible to stick to. Even then, this is not automatically considered a substantial reason to change the agreement and thus is not guaranteed to be successful. The courts will consider the reasons for the move when deciding whether to make amendments to the custody order.

It is worth noting that many child custody orders contain limitations on where the custodial parent can move the child. For example, there may be a clause that forbids the parent from moving their child out of state or more than 50 miles from the other parent. In these cases, relocation beyond this would be classed as a violation of the order and could be deemed as child abduction. However, if both parents agree on the relocation and changes to the child visitation schedule, it is possible to get a modification of custody to best suit the new arrangement.

4. The Death of a Parent

When one parent dies, the child custody order will need to change. If the non-custodial parent passes away, the custodial parent will gain full custody. However, if the custodial parent dies, the custody of the child doesn’t automatically fall to the other parent. The courts will decide what happens based on the child’s best interests. In many cases, living with the non-custodial parent is the agreed solution, but others could see grandparents or another third party assuming custody.

5. Change of the Parent’s Emotional and Physical State

According to US family law, the parent’s emotional and physical state are considered when deciding on an appropriate child custody agreement. This is because the stability of their home environment is thought to have a huge impact on the stability of the child. It follows that changes to this can stand as grounds for a custody change. Examples of parental instability due to emotional and physical states include:

  • Severe mental health difficulties
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Frequently relocating and uprooting the child’s life
  • History of criminal activity
  • Consistent unemployment
  • Not having anywhere to live
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6. The Child’s Needs Have Changed

Just as the circumstances of the parents can change with time, so can the needs of the child. A baby or young child will have completely different needs to children in their teens. Therefore, the best place for the child may change throughout their lifetime. For example, one parent may live closer to a better school, which the child wishes to attend, whereas the other parent lives too far away for them to be accepted as a student. If it can be proven to the courts that the child would have better opportunities living with the other parent, they may issue a modification of child custody.

Changes to the child’s emotional state are another reason a judge will change custody. If the child is suffering mentally, it could prove to the courts that they are not in the best situation. The judge will reassess the situation and determine whether the child is better off living with the other parent.

7. Child Abuse or Neglect

The basis of a child custody agreement is to ensure the child’s best interests are met. Therefore, a judge will change custody if the child is suffering abuse. This will typically see the responsible parent losing custody, and their parental rights being terminated. It is important to note that the abuse does not need to be physical to be classed as grounds for a custody change. Verbal abuse that results in emotional trauma can see custody rights be removed, as does physical abuse resulting in minor or major injuries and sexual assault.

34 U.S. Code Chapter 20334 U.S. Code Chapter 203 - Victims Of Child Abuse

Neglect can similarly have child visitation rights or full custody removed. This is defined as when the parent refuses the child their basic rights. Examples could include not feeding or bathing the child, leaving them home alone for extended periods, or failure to provide required medical care. The parent requesting the modification of the order will need to offer proof to the courts and usually requires eyewitnesses to offer statements.

8. Danger to the Child

A child can also be in danger by indirect means rather than through direct abuse or neglect. For example, if there is domestic violence in the home, this puts the child at risk. Even if they are never physically hurt and are not a victim of domestic violence, they are at an increased risk of physical harm. Moreover, they will likely suffer from the emotional effects of seeing violence regularly in their home. Other examples of endangerment include drug abuse, psychotic breaks, unstable behavior, and frequent mental health hospitalizations.

Where the child is thought to be in urgent and immediate danger, an emergency custody order can be put in place. This acts as a temporary modification of custody which can be put into effect without contacting the other parent. It is also wise to contact the police if the situation gets out of hand and the child is at serious risk of harm. 


The decision to change the child custody plan depends on many factors, some of which the judge can see as sufficient. The most common ones are when the children are in danger, being the subjects of abuse or neglect.

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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