Family Law

Enforcement of Child Custody Agreements

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When a child's parents aren't married, it's likely they have a child custody agreement to set the rules and boundaries for parenting. Child custody agreements often arise in a divorce, but may be used whenever a family isn't in the traditional form.

It's of course ideal when parents work together and can file their custody agreement away. Sometimes it isn't that easy, and you need legal help to enforce your custody agreement. Once you look to a court for help, there are many kinds of enforcement tools a judge can use. Learn about these options and you'll be prepared to work with your lawyer to get your custody agreement back on track.

Custody Enforcement Options

There's an important detail you can't overlook before getting enforcement help: A custody agreement must be court-issued or approved. A custody order comes from a court, even if parents agreed to the terms and presented the agreement to the court for approval.

There are many different types of legal proceedings and remedies used to enforce a custody order. Your lawyer is your best guide in reviewing options and getting started. Here are some legal remedies you may see used in your case:

Contempt of Court

A contempt of court proceeding is one of the most common ways to enforce a custody order. Contempt of court means someone has disobeyed or disrespected court authority. A judge may impose a sanction upon finding someone in contempt, typically a fine or even jail time. Contempt proceedings are usually viewed as a civil court matter. However,some courts view them as quasi-criminal because jail is possible.

Habeas Corpus

Habeas corpus means "you have the body" in Latin, and a writ of habeas corpus is used to bring your child to the court so custody issues can be decided. A petition for a writ of habeas corpus basically says that someone has wrongful possession of your child in violation of your custody rights. The writ enables the return of your child to you.

Modification of Child Support

A court may reduce, suspend or end a parent's duty to pay child support when a custodial parent disobeys visitation terms. However, some courts won't use this remedy because of the risk that cutting support will only harm the child.

Punitive Custody Changes

If your custody or visitation rights have been violated, you can ask the court to modify the custody order based on the other parent's conduct. You're asking for punishment for violating the custody order. Requests for fines or jail time may be paired with this remedy.

Posting of a Bond

A court may require a bond to insure a parent complies with a custody order. A common purpose behind bond use is to ensure a parent returns a child from visitation.

Money Damages

You can seek money damages when the other parent violates your custody order. Some states also have laws allowing money damages for interfering with visitation.

Criminal Liability

Criminal liability is possible when one parent keeps a child from the other parent contrary to their custody agreement. Criminal charges may even be possible when parents have joint custody, but break their custody order terms.

Injunctive Relief

A court may grant injunctive relief when a parent isn't complying with a custody agreement. This remedy can be paired with other enforcement tools. Injunction terms can also be aimed at prevention, ordering a parent not to alienate or take a child away from the other parent.

Pursuing Enforcement Options

Know what to expect once you turn to the courts for enforcement help. The other parent is entitled to notice of legal proceedings. The parent is also generally entitled to a full hearing. A hearing gives the other parent the chance to answer to your claims, question witnesses and present evidence.

While there are many ways to enforce a custody order, it's up to the court to decide which one to use in your case. Courts have broad discretion in using their powers to enforce custody and visitation agreements.

The best interest of the child standard guides a court in deciding enforcement issues. This legal standard means to do what is best for the child's overall well-being, and is used in making custody and visitation decisions.

Finally, know that both parents must follow the law when it comes to custody matters. Work with your lawyer to decide on the best way to solve your custody or visitation problem. Staying calm and civil may allow everyone to talk through a dispute and avoid more drastic solutions and a trip to court.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What proceeding would be best to initiate against the other parent to enforce our custody and visitation agreement?
  • Does the court have to approve a custody agreement before I can initiate a proceeding to enforce it?
  • How severe does a custody agreement violation have to be before a court will help me?
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