How to Modify a Child Custody Agreement in California

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Raising kids takes a long time. Although great care goes into making the best possible custody and visitation agreement, the right plan for your child at four years old may not be suitable by age 10 or 14. There are several reasons this might happen.

Fortunately, in California, either parent, custodial or non-custodial, can legally request a modification of custody orders at any time until the child turns 18. But the rules surrounding changes are strict, the process can be complex and time-consuming, and there’s no guarantee the court will grant the request.

A judge will only approve a modification to a custody and visitation agreement if persuaded that it’s necessary and in the child’s best interests.

You’ll have to demonstrate that there has been a significant change in circumstances since the court issued the former order—and that the modification you request is essential to your child’s well-being.

Reasons the court will consider modifying child custody orders include:

  • The child’s needs have changed such that the current order is inappropriate or unworkable
  • The child is in danger (physical/sexual/emotional abuse, severe neglect, subjected to a dangerous environment)
  • One parent is consistently irresponsible, negatively impacting the child (not getting them to school, missing medical appointments, etc.)
  • One parent refuses to follow the custody order or denies the other rightful contact
  • One parent has a significant change in employment, personal affairs, or location that affects their ability to care for the child
  • The court may also consider the child’s preferences, depending on age, maturity level, motivation, and ability to make such a decision—typically after about 12 years old

If your situation meets those guidelines, here’s how to request a modification, step by step:

  1. Fill out form FL-300 Request for Order to supply details of the requested change. You can add the FL-311 Child Custody and Visitation (Parenting Time) Application Attachment to add supporting facts regarding visitation history, etc.
  2. Make two copies of each form
  3. File your original form(s) with the court clerk and pay the filing fee (fee may be waived based on income)
  4. The clerk will then assign a court date
  5. Serve the other parent with a copy of the form(s); keep one copy for your records
  6. File proof of service with the court
  7. Attend a hearing

At your hearing, there may be limited time for verbal argument and presenting evidence. The judge will therefore rely heavily on the documentation you submitted. Although the forms can feel overwhelming, you must be very thorough and detailed in completing them. Provide all information and lay out your request, staying focused on your child’s needs and quality of life.

Avoiding Court

The judge will typically order child custody mediation to be completed before your trial. If not, you will have to go before the judge. If both parties and their attorneys can agree on a new arrangement through mediation, it can save everyone time and money.

Alternatively, suppose you and your co-parent work well together and can agree on changes when needed. In that case, you can enter a stipulation, which, if approved, will be signed by the judge and become the new court order. However, it’s still crucial to go through the proper legal channels! An oral agreement between you and your ex is not legally enforceable. It can backfire badly, resulting in steep penalties such as being reported for kidnapping.

Although you’re not required to work with a lawyer when requesting a custody modification, it’s advisable to do so. At SFLG, our experienced family law attorneys can guide and assist you from forms to the court, simplify this complex process, and ensure that you present your strongest case and achieve the best possible outcome for your child.

by Debra Schoenberg

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