What happens when a parent wants to move away with the children?
One of the most difficult types of family law cases occurs when a parent seeks to move away from the home state and take the children. This is one of those situations when sometimes there is just no middle ground. The ‘staying’ parent cannot envision not having easy and regular access to the kids. The idea of not being able to drop in to have lunch at school, or not being there to see a soccer practice, or not being able to talk in the car on the drive to carpool, or not watching the baby sleep creates intense fear and anxiety. The ‘moving’ parent probably has legitimate reason to move; maybe for a new and better job; career advancement; military service; remarriage. That parent cannot envision the impossible choice to leave a child behind or turn down an incredible opportunity.
In North Carolina, a Judge must consider several factors when considering whether the move is in the best interest of the child. These factors include:
- The advantages of the relocation in terms of its capacity to improve the life of the child.
- The motives of the custodial parent in seeking the move.
- The likelihood that the custodial parent will comply with visitation orders when he or she is no longer subject to the jurisdiction of the Courts of North Carolina.
- The integrity of the noncustodial parent in resisting the relocation.
- The likelihood that a realistic visitation schedule can be arranged which will preserve and foster the parental relationship with the noncustodial parent.
The factors can include not only the negative outcomes of moving, but also the positives. Relocation cases are never easy. Regardless of whether it’s the staying-parent or the away-parent who receives primary physical custody, that parent typically will have chunks of non-school time carved out so the kids can spend time with the other parent plus many public holidays that can create long weekends.
One of my most significant take-aways from recent relocation litigation is how critically important it is for the moving parent to have locked down in concrete terms what life will look like for the child in the new location. This means, for example, school placement. Evidence that the child might go to this school or that one or general evidence that the school options are excellent is insufficient. The better practice is to present comprehensive evidence that the kids will go to XYZ School along with all the related facts and selling-points about the virtues of XYZ School.
I also feel the better practice is to offer evidence about a permanent residence with pictures or video. I’m talking about evidence like, this is THE house, located at 123 SunnySide Lane. The children’s bedrooms look like [insert photo]. General evidence along the lines of this could be the neighborhood or these are the options does not offer the security that is necessary to create confidence that the move is going to be best for the children.
It is critical to offer as much detailed testimony, examples, pictures, and video of exactly what life in the new city will look like. When it comes to custody cases, I do not believe Judges like a mystery. The unknown is worrisome. The home state is certain. Facts are absolutely known. As much as possible, I feel it essential to level-up the playing field when comparing the home to the move-away location.
For example, in one of my cases, we had pictures and video of the new home. We videotaped the bike ride to the new school so the Judge could virtually ride along. Then we went inside and into a classroom. We had a “day-in-the-life” home movie featuring the neighborhood and nearby park. We “drove” to the grocery store and did some shopping. We walked to Grandma’s. And so on.
Another thing I learned is how much improvement there is by the airline industry in managing unaccompanied minor travel. For instance, Delta Airlines affixes a barcode wristband and tracks the child almost like a package. A mobile app tracks bags. There are affordable wearable tracking devices that attach like a wrist watch so the parents can also track the children. And, the parents can track the airplane in real time using sites like www.flightaware.com or www.flightview.com. The airline’s associated digital apps will send notifications and updates.
Coincidentally, after one of my relocation cases, I was on an airplane in the second row of the main cabin seated behind a pair of kids traveling alone on their way to see their grandparents. I was downright jealous at the attention and special treatment they received. They got ice cream sundaes!!! And iPads!