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it is increasingly common to move out of our hometowns in our global world. Many leave their families to go to college and end up staying there. Others “go where the money takes them” and move across the country for work. It is only natural that families form in places where one spouse has no family nearby. When the relationship breaks apart though, problems may arise. A suddenly single parent can quickly become overwhelmed at having no family nearby. It is often after a separation that one parent wants to move out of state to be closer to her support system. This feeling is understandable, but raises numerous questions for the other parent. “Can she take our child with her,” “is she allowed to move,” and “will I ever see our child again” are questions that parents bring to us when they are served with relocation paperwork.
The Relocation Timeline
First, a word on how quickly a relocation matter proceeds. In Pennsylvania, absent unusual circumstances, parents must give at least 60 days’ notice to the other before they move. This means that a parent cannot tell you that tomorrow they’re moving to Florida with your child and be in compliance with the relocation statute. In the rare circumstances where it is not possible to give 60 days’ notice, the parent has to provide reasons. A mere “I didn’t know I had to give that much notice” will not suffice.
Once the parent files a relocation petition, the other has 30 days to object. If you object, you will appear in front of a judge. Relocation matters are supposed to be “expedited.” In my experience however, this is not to be misconstrued as occurring quickly. In many counties throughout Pennsylvania, you will be waiting for months before going to trial.
It is possible that a judge will allow the parent to move sooner pending the trial. This is most common if the parent staying in Pennsylvania does not have overnights. It also happens if there is a safety concern. But in the majority of cases, judges do not grant this permission.
Except in very unusual circumstances, you can rest assured that your children will not move out of state anytime soon. If you are exercising regular custody of your children, this is almost always the case.
Who gets to move?
I always remind my clients that the real problem isn’t the parent moving. Judges cannot stop adults from choosing to live where they want. In fact, it is good to assume that the parent will ultimately move away. The problem is that the parent wants to move with the child. When a judge denies a relocation, she is not forcing the parent to remain in Pennsylvania. Instead, she’s ruling that the child cannot move with the parent.
Because you should assume your ex will ultimately move, it’s important to ask whether you’re in a position to exercise primary custody. Most parents would be able to do so, even if it would require some juggling in their schedules. However, there are times when this is not realistic. For example, a parent may not have stable housing, or be actively involved in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, or not have reliable childcare. Any of these scenarios may make primary custody difficult. It is important to consider whether you can exercise primary custody because there will be no order preventing your ex from moving without your child.
Of course, once you decide you could care for the children on your own, you likely want to know what a judge has to consider.
In addition to the regular 16 custody factors, a judge has to consider various factors in a relocation case. These include your relationship with your child, and whether you can maintain it if your child moves. The judge also looks at the benefits to the parent and the child in moving. For now, I will only focus on these three factors.
Preserving the relationship depends on how much you see your children now, and how much you are likely to see them if they move with your ex. If you are currently exercising custody every other weekend, it may be possible to see them just as much if your ex moves an hour away. It may not be the exact same schedule, but your time will not be reduced. If you share custody though, moving an hour away will require that you see them less than you do now. There is no set rule on how far is “too far” to interfere with your relationship. It is very case-specific and also depends on your child’s age and your financial circumstances. The vast majority of families simply cannot afford to fly every month from Pennsylvania to Florida even if they want to do so.
Judges do consider whether the relocation benefits your ex. In the vast majority of cases, the answer to this question will be “yes.” Parents often want to move to be closer to family, or because the cost of living is lower, or because they may earn more income. These are all legitimate reasons for a parent to desire to move. Often, there is no dispute that relocating would be in the parent’s best interest.
However, a relocation is not just about what is best for the parent. Ultimately it has to be in the child’s best interest. Judges consider whether your child will have any personal, financial, or educational benefits. Being around extended family in a new state is usually very positive! But, it has to be weighed in connection with changing schools and your children leaving their friends and family in Pennsylvania. If your children are thriving with healthy relationships in Pennsylvania, that has to be balanced against the unknown of moving to a new city.
Your child’s opinion on moving
Depending on how old your children are, the judge may want to speak with them. Many parents wanting to move say their children want to do so as well. It’s true that many times children do support moving. Moving to a new home requires a large financial and emotional investment and most parents would not do it if they thought their children would say no.
Your child’s opinion is not the final word though. Younger children may not appreciate how far away they would move, and how much would change. Their reasons for wanting or not wanting to move are also varied. A judge will look at the situation differently if the child says “I want to move to Florida so I can go to Disney World” versus “I’ve been bullied a lot up here and moving to a new place will let me start over.”
Relocation cases are among the most contentious because there is rarely a “meet in the middle” point. There are numerous factors judges consider and no guaranteed outcome. If you are facing a relocation issue, it is good to consider whether you can exercise primary custody and what the benefits will be for your children if they move. It goes without saying that this is not a process you should undertake on your own! By thinking through the various relocation factors, you can help your custody lawyer craft a strong objection to the relocation.