After divorce, a parent hoping to change or modify an existing custody order must petition the court and present evidence of a “change in circumstances” that warrants the modification. In California, courts typically favor maintaining an existing custody arrangement, citing the paramount need for continuity and stability in a child’s custody situation. In fact, courts have expressed some reluctance to make changes except for imperative reasons. Disputes over child custody and visitation arise far too often in divorce and separation cases. In order to protect your rights, it is important to consult with an experienced family law attorney from the San Diego area, someone who understands the laws applicable to cases filed in the local area.
One of the grounds for a modification of custody is conduct by a custodial parent that is designed to frustrate the other parent’s visitation and relationship with the children. In a recent California case, the mother appealed a court’s ruling that granted the father’s request for a modification of child custody. Here, the couple got married in 1996 and had four children together. During their divorce in 2010, the court ordered joint legal custody, and the children’s primary residence was to be with the mother. The father was entitled to visitation every other weekend.
While the father sought and was denied a modification of custody in 2012, he filed a second request for an order modifying custody and visitation in 2014, seeking legal and physical custody of the four children. The father alleged that the mother did not obey the court order allowing him visitation. He claimed that she does not allow him to see the children and to be a part of the kids’ lives. The mother opposed the request, claiming that she never denied the father visitation. She attributed some of the recent problems to the father’s November 2013 remarriage.
The parties met with Family Court Services (“FCS”). The counselor recommended a change in custody, pointing out that the mother had been unable to make a commitment to share the children with the father. The FCS counselor noted that the problems that the children were having with the father were attributed to their inconsistent contact with him. After a hearing, the trial court adopted the FCS mediator’s recommendation, concluding that it was in the best interests of the children. The mother appealed, arguing that there was no evidence of changed circumstances.
The court of appeals disagreed, concluding that there was substantial evidence supporting the trial court’s finding of a material change in circumstances. For one, the mother admitted that she repeatedly failed to comply with the court-ordered visitation requiring her to exchange the children at a specific place. Furthermore, the court pointed out that the mother continued to violate the court-ordered visitation.
In order to justify a modification of a custody order, the change in circumstances must be substantial. Here, the court found that the mother’s conduct, designed to frustrate the father’s visitation and relationship with his children, was sufficient grounds for such a modification. While this is an unpublished decision, and it may not be relied on or cited to in subsequent custody actions, the court’s reasoning could certainly inform the outcome of future court opinions.
Parents wishing to protect their rights in a child custody matter, whether part of a divorce case or not, are strongly encouraged to consult with an experienced family law attorney as early as possible in the proceedings. Roy M. Doppelt is an experienced and dedicated family law attorney, representing parents for more than 20 years in Southern California. His office serves clients in San Diego, Linda Vista, Encinitas, Scripps Ranch, and throughout Southern California. For a free consultation with a devoted and experienced family lawyer, contact Doppelt & Forney through the law firm’s website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).
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