Modifying a child’s custody is a big decision both for parents and for the court. When a child’s primary living situation is changed, it uproots the child’s daily routines and life. Since the law favors stability, the standard for changing custody is a bit different than the legal standard a court applies the first time it decides custody. In other words, it is harder to change what is already ordered than it was to get the first order.
Indiana’s law instructs a court that it cannot change a child’s custody unless it finds that the change would be in the best interest of the child AND it finds a substantial change in one of the following factors:
- The child’s age
- The wishes of the parents
- The wishes of the child if he or she is at least 14 years old
- The child’s adjustment to his or her community, school, and home
- The child’s relationships with important people in his or her life
- The physical or mental health of the child or a parent
- A pattern of violent or neglectful behavior
Parents are often confused about the second requirement to show a “substantial change” and are surprised to learn that not all changes are enough. Some parents believe that small changes in the way a child behaves or feels should be enough to change custody, but children tend to change as they get older and these normal childhood changes are not generally substantial enough to warrant a custody change. For instance, a teenager who is routinely pushing back on boundaries at his or her primary home and is arguing with that parent is doing normal teenage stuff. Unless the situation involves serious safety issues or is accompanied by a dramatic drop in grades or other alarming behavior, normal teenage angst may not be a substantial enough change.
Parents are also often surprised to learn that changes in their homes and finances are not substantial enough to justify a custody change. For instance, when a parent gets remarried, gets a lucrative new job, or moves to a nice new home, that parent may feel that he or she is ready to be the primary custodial parent. However, these changes alone are generally not substantial enough. Indiana law does not automatically give custody to the parent with the nicer home or with more income. In addition, remarriage of a parent does not impact one of the factors above enough to meet the legal standard required to modify custody.
Remember, Indiana law places a high value on stability for children. Once a parenting plan is in place for a child, the law is specifically designed to make it harder to change. If you are considering asking for a custody change, take a hard look at how your child is really doing with the current parenting plan. If your child is doing pretty well, a change might not be the best thing for your child and may not be permitted under the law. If your child is not thriving, contact an attorney to discuss the situation and to see if you can meet the legal standard for modification.