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Custody modifications in Indiana: Case provides 3 important lessons

Whether moving for a new job opportunity or to be closer to family, parents who choose to move face unique obstacles. This is particularly true when that move involves a custody arrangement with another parent. In this scenario, the moving parent may need to request a custody modification. In some situations, the court may grant this request. The court’s decision will depend on several factors.

Are these types of situations common?

The courts often see these kinds of requests. In some cases, the parents may agree to the modification. In others, they may not. In a recent example where the parents did not agree, Kayla Stout v. Patric Stout, a mother petitioned the court for approval to modify the custody arrangement. The divorced parents had joint legal custody and resided in Kokomo. The mother had primary physical custody and the father parenting time. The parents were divorced in 2014 and the mother filed a notice to relocate with the children in 2020.

The father objected.

The court denied the mother’s request and instead granted the father primary physical custody. This case serves as a valuable example of custody modifications because it dives into the courts process when making these decisions.

How do courts in Indiana make custody modification determinations?

State law does not take these matters lightly. A parent who wishes to relocate more than 20 miles further from the other parent’s residence or outside of the current school district, must file an intent to move with the court. The nonrelocating parent then has an opportunity to file an objection and request changes to the custody or parenting time orders.

If the nonrelocating parent objects, they can then file an order to prevent relocation of the child and a request for a modification of custody. The burden then falls on the relocating individual to establish that the proposed relocation is in “good faith and for a legitimate reason.”

The court looks to two factors when deciding these cases: whether the requested modification is in the best interest of the child and whether there was a substantial change. When looking at the best interest of the child, the court can take many factors into consideration including the age of the child, wishes of the parents, wishes of the child (with more consideration given to this factor if the child is at least 14 years of age), and mental health of all involved.

In this case the trial court, or lower court, held that the move was not in the child’s best interest. The court noted that the younger of the two children had deteriorating academic performance after the move. The mother argued he just needed more time to adjust, the father argued he needed stability as the mother had moved to multiple different residences upon her move to Plainfield. The court agreed with the father.

The mother appealed the trial court’s refusal to grant the relocation. Upon review, the Court of Appeals of Indiana agreed with the lower court’s findings, noting that there was “substantial evidence” to support that at least one of the children had not adjusted to the move and that he may be better suited for success in Kokomo with his father and extended family.

What should other parents learn from this case?

Those who are in a comparable situation can learn the following from this case:

  • A plan is important. Those who need to modify a custody agreement or are filing a request to relocate are wise to have a plan. Part of the issue in this case was the mother’s failure to find a home. She moved to multiple locations with different partners during her time in Plainfield. This did not help her establish that the move was in the best interest of the children.
  • Best interest standard. The courts rely heavily on the best interests of the children when looking at initial custody determinations as well as modifications. In addition to the factors noted above, the court can also consider the interaction of the child’s parents and anyone else like stepsiblings or any pattern of domestic abuse. Consider these factors when looking to relocate to help better ensure a successful request.
  • Importance of evidence. The trial court can review an array of evidence when making its determination. It is important to provide enough to make your case because the appellate level will also generally rely on this evidence if you chose to appeal the lower court’s decision.

It is important to point out that the court relied upon the child’s adjustment after the move. This type of evidence is not always available for these types of cases. The court can restrain the move of the child until after a determination on the evidence. As such, in some instances the court will not allow a move until after it hears the evidence, so the parties would not have this type of evidence (such as child’s declining academic performance after the move) to rely upon when making its determination.