No Child Left Behind: Moving with Your Children Post-Divorce

Children, Relocating and Divorce
Your boss tells you they’re closing down the branch office you work for and moving your job to a city 200 miles away. He’s hoping you’ll be willing to relocate — even offers you a pay raise and financial help with the moving and house-hunting. The school systems in the new location are world-class, so there are many good reasons to move. But what does moving mean for you legally with regard to your children and your ex spouse?

For anyone who has sole legal and physical child custody, there are few legal ramifications to relocating with your children. You can move if you wish, and there’s very little your ex can do to stop you — unless the custody agreement specifies a child visitation plan. In this case, you’ll need to provide some assurance that your spouse will still be able to have regular visits despite the distance.(Keep in mind this may mean extra costs out of your pocket!)

If you have joint legal custody, and especially if you have joint physical custody, be ready for some serious negotiations with your ex-spouse to modify the child custody order. Do your homework ahead of time: sit down and map out why this move will benefit the children, so you can make the case that relocating is in their best interest as well as yours. A better school system, improved ability to pay for college and extracurricular activities, and greater financial security are all good reasons to offer.

You may get an initial response that is emotional and negative: “You’re not stealing my kids from me!” It’s normal for parents to overreact in these circumstances, and you shouldn’t take it personally. But understand that you may also be in for a serious fight, especially if the children are very young.

If the children are older, you may also need to respect their wishes during negotiations. I once knew a couple whose amicable custody arrangement lasted until the man’s Swiss ex-wife decided to move to Zurich with their two children. The husband put his foot down: No WAY was she taking his children out of the country! An ugly battle was avoided through careful child custody negotiations with a mediator. In the end, the son, 9, went to Zurich with Mom, while the daughter, 15, was allowed to decide for herself where she’d live. When she decided to stay in the U.S., the parents arranged for regular telephone calls, e-mails, and summer visits to keep the children in close contact with each other and their long-distance parent. (With Skype and social media now available, even such extreme distances are less of an obstacle —which can work to your advantage!)

Of course, some ex-spouses aren’t willing to negotiate. As a last resort, you may need to go to court to alter the child custody agreement. In this case, hire a qualified family law attorney who’s experienced in handling custody cases. Remember that the judge will be looking at not what’s best for you, but what’s best for the children — your attorney’s job is to argue that they’re both the same thing.