As family law attorneys, we often encounter the issue of relocation in custody situations. I previously wrote about the top custody myths in Lancaster County and addressed a common myth that parents have in custody situations — "I can move wherever I want and take my children with me." This assumption, as I point out and as Holly Filius expands on in her blog post about changes to the Pennsylvania Custody Act, can be hazardous for parents who do not understand or know about the notice requirements of the law. These requirements are discussed frequently in family law sites and blogs, but what many clients wonder is how far a move has to be in order to trigger the notice requirements required by law. Is it okay to move to the next neighborhood? The other side of town? What about 30 miles away?
The Custody Act defines relocation as any move that significantly impairs the non-custodial parent’s ability to exercise custodial rights to the children. Any move that falls under this definition requires the custodial parent (the parent who has physical custody of the child or children the majority of the time) to follow the notice procedures of the Act. This begs the question, how far can a move be before it "significantly impairs" the other parent? Here in Lancaster County, a move is usually considered relocation if the custodial parent proposes to move with the children to a different school district. Changing districts could make it difficult for the other parent to complete the necessary custodial exchanges and take the children to any events or appointments they have while under their care. Although there are some Pennsylvania school districts that are geographically small, rural ones can be spaced far apart so that even moving to the "next district over" could create a significant distance to travel.
I recently was involved with a case where the custodial parent, without advance notice, moved to a home about 50 minutes from the former marital residence where the parties lived together with the child before separating. The custodial parent did not move outside of the county, but did remove the child from the school district in which they were enrolled. Because the 50-minute drive significantly impaired the non-custodial parent’s ability to exercise custody of the child, the court ordered that the child be returned to the non-custodial parent. The outcome of that case, which was favorable to the non-custodial parent, most likely would have been much different had the moving parent complied with the relocation provisions of the law.
The lesson for all parents is this: custodial parents seeking to move with children should not only follow the procedure set forth in the Custody Act, but also use common sense. Notify the non-custodial parent in advance of the move. Provide the address, telephone number, name of the school district and the names of the people living in the house. If faced with a proposed relocation by a custodial parent, non-custodial parents need to be aware of their rights, and if necessary consult with an attorney regarding a challenge to a move.
Julie Miller is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Dickinson School of Law and practices in a variety of areas including Family Law.