Back to Top

How Do Child Custody Cases Work When Your Former Spouse Lives in a Different State?

Each divorce is unique, and every proceeding comes with a set of considerations. For some, the process of settling a divorce will be more difficult than others – particularly if one spouse moves to a different state. Learn how distance may affect a child custody arrangement.

Divorced parents living in different states are not an uncommon phenomenon, but it does make the job of parenting more difficult, at least from a logistical standpoint. The law considers the child’s best interest when deciding matters of custody and also holds that a child will generally benefit from a relationship with both parents. Additionally, a child custody order in one state will be valid in virtually every other state. For these reasons, your former spouse can’t simply pick up, move to a different state without a court’s say so, and reasonably expect to keep joint custody of a child.

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act

To make clear the expectations for each parent, even across state lines, most of the United States and the District of Columbia adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which allows the courts to set certain standards for when another jurisdiction must defer to a previous ruling regarding matters of custody. As of now, only Massachusetts and Vermont do not uphold the Uniform Child Custody and Enforcement Act.

Under the law, a state court can only make decisions regarding a child custody arrangement if:

  • That state is the child’s home state. For this condition to apply, the child must reside with the parent for at least six months prior to the filing of legal action.
  • The child has connections with another in the state. Additionally, the courts may designate a child’s home state if he or she has significant connections, such as teachers, doctors, friends, and extended family members.
  • The child is in a state for safety reasons – i.e., to escape abuse or neglect.

Under the law, a state cannot render a child custody ruling if it cannot meet one of the requirements listed above. In other words, your former spouse cannot leave the state with a child and expect their new home state to issue a new custody ruling.

When Can a Parent Move and Keep Custody?

The terms of a child custody arrangement are legally binding and failure to adhere to them can result in negative consequences, even loss of custody. When one parent wants to leave town or go to another state, he or she might encounter a fight with the other parent, especially if that parent does not have physical custody. If your former spouse wants to move to another state, he or she will have to go to court and ask permission to move the child out of the state, if he or she is the one with physical custody.

In general, no parent can remove a child from his or her state of residence without approval from the courts if a child custody ruling already exists. If a divorce case is pending, such a move could negatively affect the decision of custody. If your spouse wants to move to another state before the finalization of the divorce proceeding, it’s more likely that you will receive physical custody based on the criteria outlined above.

If your former spouse has physical custody and fails to notify the courts before moving your child out of state, the courts can issue sanctions that charge him or her with contempt, which may include fines and jail time. The law takes child custody matters very seriously, so neither you nor your spouse should move out of the state without informing and gaining approval from the court.