“Let’s Blow This Popsicle Stand”- Relocation in Custody Cases

People move. It’s part of life. Sometimes people want a new house. Sometimes people want a new neighborhood. Sometimes people just want change. Whatever the reason, it is rare that people stay in the same house the entire time their children are young. With an intact family, there are fewer problems that arise with a move. When a family is divided, moving can end up costing both parties a lot of time, headache and money, including court battles. However, when custody of children is contested, the courts will not get involved with every move.

Pennsylvania courts have specific standards for “relocation” cases. Relocation is when a party “changes the residence of a child which significantly impairs the ability of a non-relocating party to exercise custodial rights.” So, what does this mean in English? Leave it to the legislature to be ambiguous when it comes to people’s lives. Essentially, it means if you move across town, it is probably not considered relocating. If you move across the state or out-of-state, you are probably relocating. I tell my clients that generally anything under thirty minutes is okay; more than that and you are moving into relocation territory. Anything in the same school district is generally okay; moving the children into a new school district may be considered relocation. Note I am using the words “probably” and “generally” in all of these statements. That because the law plus facts equals results. Change the facts an itsy-bitsy tiny bit and the results can change drastically.

I am sure by now some are asking, “why should I care what my ex or the courts have to say about me moving?” The answer is because either that ex has to agree or the court has to approve the move if you have a custody case and your move is deemed a relocation. And there is a whole process you have to go through whether it is your ex or the court approving the move.

First, you have to give notice. And not the casual text, “Hey, soooo surprise. I’m moving to Hawaii!!!!” There are specific rules about each step of the process. The notice has to be a formal legal document that is served on the other party with definite time-frame parameters. If you fail to give notice, the court can use that failure when considering whether or not to grant the relocation. However, they can mitigate the lack of notice if it was not given due to abuse.

Then the other party gets time to agree or object. If the other party agrees you can do a confirmation of relocation, which is pretty straightforward. But if the current custody order is changing at all, it still may be necessary to do a modification of custody. If the other party objects, the case will be scheduled for a hearing in front of a judge.

At the hearing, the judge must consider the best interest of the child when determining whether to grant a relocation. The judge will consider ten factors as part of his or her determination of the best interests of the child, giving deference to those regarding the child’s safety. The ten factors are:

(1) The nature, quality, extent of involvement and duration of the child’s relationship with the party proposing to relocate and with the nonrelocating party, siblings and other significant persons in the child’s life.

(2) The age, developmental stage, needs of the child and the likely impact the relocation will have on the child’s physical, educational and emotional development, taking into consideration any special needs of the child.

(3) The feasibility of preserving the relationship between the nonrelocating party and the child through suitable custody arrangements, considering the logistics and financial circumstances of the parties.

(4) The child’s preference, taking into consideration the age and maturity of the child.

(5) Whether there is an established pattern of conduct of either party to promote or thwart the relationship of the child and the other party.

(6) Whether the relocation will enhance the general quality of life for the party seeking the relocation, including, but not limited to, financial or emotional benefit or educational opportunity.

(7) Whether the relocation will enhance the general quality of life for the child, including, but not limited to, financial or emotional benefit or educational opportunity.

(8) The reasons and motivation of each party for seeking or opposing the relocation.

(9) The present and past abuse committed by a party or member of the party’s household and whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child or an abused party.

(10) Any other factor affecting the best interest of the child.

In short, the courts will look at how much time is the non-relocating party really missing out on due to the move, is there a close relationship between the minor child and the non-relocating parent, are there any siblings the child will be relocated away from, will the child be able to emotionally and academically handle the move and my personal favorite: why is the relocating parent looking to move. I don’t know how many people have sat down in my office and said to me that they were looking to move because they met someone on Tinder two months ago and it’s love so they have to be together. Well, okay, that really only happened once. But in all seriousness, a new paramour is the most frequent reason I get when I ask a parent why her or she wants to relocate. Which leads to my response that this will be an uphill battle and you had better be prepared financially. Another common reason is that the party’s job has relocated. This is a much stronger reason to relocate.

The moral of the story is that before you put a down payment on that sweet, new, ocean-front/mountain-top home, if you have physical custody of children you should consult with an experienced family law attorney in your county. You will end up saving yourself a lot of time and money if you are ahead of the game when it comes to relocation.

Julie J. Marburger, Esquire, is an attorney at the law firm of Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C.. She practices in the firm’s Reading, Pottstown and West Chester offices.  In 2014, she received the Select Lawyer award for her practice in Family Law. In 2016 and 2017, she was named as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers Magazine in the area of Family Law. She may be reached by telephone at 610.374.2400 or by e-mail to jmarburger@wolfbaldwin.com.