The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has meant some people have had to change jobs. Some have worked for companies for years, but because of a need to temporarily downsize, they may be suddenly asked to move to a different office in a different state. Some may lose their jobs, and in a new job search, find the only suitable employment is out of state.
In a family where two parents share custody of a child, a relocation could have significant ramifications for an existing parenting plan. For example, if two parents have equal periods of custody and alternate on a 4-3-3-4 schedule, the child is used to spending lots of time with each parent. Relocation out of state would make this schedule impossible. Similarly, if one parent had a bit more time than the other parent, but that parent wants to move out of state, the other parent will no longer be able to exercise that lesser but critically important time. These changes make relocation cases in general difficult.
How should a parent handle a relocation?
First, the parent should follow the Missouri relocation statute, and the terms of the statute are set out in every custody judgment. The parent seeking to relocate must give the other parent notice in writing by certified mail at least sixty days in advance of any planned relocation. The notice of relocation must include the address and phone of the proposed new residence, the reasons for the relocation, and a proposed modified schedule of physical custody. A parent who relocates without providing the statutory notice will be required to return the child or could be found in contempt. Further, relocation without notice could serve as the basis for a motion to modify custody. Consequently, no parent should ever attempt relocation without providing the exact statutory notice (exact is also important because leaving out key information has been found by our courts sufficient to prevent relocation by deficient notice).
Once a parent seeking relocation provides the proper notice, the other parent has thirty days to file a motion and affidavit opposing the relocation. The thirty-day time period is strictly enforced – failure to file in time will result in a dismissal of the motion opposing relocation and will allow the other parent to relocate.
If a parent fails to object, the relocating parent can move as planned. If a parent timely objects, the court will need to decide whether the parent can relocate by looking at two aspects: whether relocation is made in good faith and is in the best interests of the child. The criteria seem vague, but the legislature wanted to give the trial court wide discretion to decide what would be best for the child.
Our current pandemic makes relocation even more difficult for the parties and the court. The economic aspect of the move may be apparent, but it still may not make sense to have the child move. For example, a parent may need to relocate to an area with more virus cases, and the court could consider that risk too high. Also, courts will have to consider the issue of the child’s fears and concerns with relocation as well during this unusual time. A court may well choose to leave the child with the non-relocating parent and adjust the custody schedule to give the parent as much time as deemed reasonable and safe.
Another issue with relocation cases now will be time – our courts are not fully open to evidentiary hearings. We should know more about how the court will handle emergency custody matters in the next week or so, but it is doubtful that all relocation cases will get to be heard before a move may need to be made for the relocating parent.
All of this leads to the parents needing to communicate openly and honestly and quickly with each other about these changes and perhaps reaching a short term resolution that could be amended when the virus issues become less severe.
Relocation cases usually are hard; they are certainly harder now in the time of COVID-19.
If you have questions about relocation and COVID-19, contact us – we can help.