Our Freehold child custody lawyers are sometimes asked whether it’s possible to change a custody agreement without going to court. Short answer? Yes. However, any changes not approved by a court order will be unenforceable. Nothing will legally bind either co-parent to an informal modification of the original agreement. This could cause significant conflict down the road. That is why we recommend formalizing your new plans with a requested modification drafted by an attorney and submitted to the court for approval.
Terms of the initial custody order can only be legally modified by a judge. If you change that order on your own, without putting it in writing and the other parent suddenly decides he or she doesn’t want to go along with it anymore: They don’t have to - and you would have no recourse. Furthermore, if you’re operating under the terms of the new, informal agreement instead of the original order that’s legally binding, YOU could land in hot water with the court.
While an informal custody agreement may seem mutually beneficial at first, issues and disagreements can arise without the structure and authority of a court order. It’s a good idea to at least talk to a lawyer before you make any changes to your parenting time or custody arrangement.
Chances are that if you’re trying to change the custody situation, you have a pretty good reason. If the point is to advocate for the well-being of your child, talking with a family lawyer who can help you file for an enforceable order ensures that either way, expectations are clear.
One way co-parents can avoid hashing out new parenting time or custody arrangements in front of a judge is through post-judgment mediation with a trained, impartial mediator. As we’ve noted frequently, mediation is often preferable to litigation to reach a divorce settlement, but it can also be used to effectively resolve post-divorce or post-judgment issues. If you and you co-parent are communicating and basically already know what you want the new custody order to say, then mediation shouldn’t take long. The agreement you reach is then submitted to the courts for review and approval. If if both parents agree and the changes are responsible, practical and in the best interests of the child, the judge isn’t likely to deny it.
Post-judgment mediation can involve one attorney guiding both of you through the process or you can work with a private, third-party mediation firm. In either case, you may want to consult with a family law attorney working solely for you who can advise you whether the changes you are planning are legal and in your best interests. The are three reasons for this:
- In New Jersey, mediators (even those who are attorneys) are not allowed to provide you with legal counsel or advice. Only a family lawyer who you hire can do that.
- You don’t want to spend weeks or months negotiating a new child custody or parenting time agreement, only to learn it isn’t legally enforceable or in your best interests.
- If you sign off on child custody changes and the court approves, changing them again – particularly without your co-parent’s consent – could prove difficult. The high proof standard to modify child custody arrangements is to show a significant change of circumstances. These are outlined in N.J.S.A. 9:2-4. Better to have a lawyer to help you craft or least review the agreement before you sign to ensure you aren’t overlooking something you’ll later regret.
In summary, if you want a change in the child custody agreement, the best way to protect everyone involved and make expectations clear is to have it formalized with a court order. But a Freehold child custody lawyer can help you get to that point without a protracted legal battle.
Contact the Freehold child custody attorneys at Rozin-Golinder Law LLC by calling (732) 810-0034.