Family Law

Enforcement of Child Custody Agreements

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
When your ex refuses to follow the terms of a custody agreement, it can make life difficult for you and your child. Don’t lose hope: There are ways to enforce a child custody order.

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Is My Custody Agreement Enforceable?

It’s always a good thing when parents can reach their own custody agreements: Parents usually know best when it comes to their own children. But there’s a big difference between verbal custody agreements made by parents and court-ordered custody plans.

Parents who work out their own custody and visitation arrangements should submit their agreements to a judge for approval. If you and your ex simply work off of a verbal custody agreement, and then your ex suddenly refuses to follow it, there’s very little a court can do to help you enforce it. By contrast, a custody agreement that's been approved or issued by a court is binding on both parents and carries penalties if either parent violates it.

What Can I Do When My Ex Prevents Visitation?

Both parents must follow custody orders, which includes allowing visitation, even if they don't want to. If your ex cuts off visitation between you and your child, it’s important to seek help. For example, if your child’s other parent cancels your scheduled visit, you should send a text or email requesting a make-up day. You’ll have to take more drastic measures if your ex regularly prevents you from seeing your child—talk to your attorney, write an email or formal letter to your ex, attend mediation to resolve the issue, or file a court action for contempt. Some custody orders require parents to attend counseling or mediation before filing an enforcement action with the court. But if mediation doesn’t resolve the problem, or your ex is unwilling to attend, it's time to ask a court for help.

A judge can hold a parent in contempt of court for repeatedly disobeying a custody order. You’ll need clear and well-documented evidence that your ex is preventing visitation. As punishment for your ex’s actions, a judge can grant you additional make-up visits or fine the other parent. In the most extreme cases, a judge can put a parent in jail for consistently ignoring the terms of a visitation order. Jail time is usually only appropriate when one parent has done something especially egregious, like take a child out of state to prevent visitation.

When Should I Call the Police?

It’s important not to overreact to minor custody violations. For example, if your child’s other parent drops your child off 30 minutes late, don’t rush to report it to the police. However, it's a good idea to keep a working journal, where you can keep track of tardiness and no-shows. A timeline of well-documented visitation problems is essential if you need to go to court.

By contrast, if your ex is several hours late to a visitation exchange or has taken your children out of state without your permission, you should call the police immediately. Use your best judgment, but your child’s safety should always be your first priority.

When Can I Modify the Custody Order?

Normally, you’d be excited to avoid contact with your ex. However, it can be frustrating if your child’s other parent is entitled to visitation and never takes it. You may feel like this could be harmful to your children if they're expecting to see mom or dad, but are constantly being disappointed. On top of that, the other parent constantly canceling at the last minute can be incredibly disruptive as it forces you to plan your life around visits that may or may not happen. In cases where one parent always avoids or cancels visits, you may have grounds to modify the custody order.

Courts are usually hesitant to reduce parental custody, so a judge will need evidence that any proposed change is in your child’s best interests. Even so, you may want to modify a custody order if you share parenting time on paper, but in reality, your child’s other parent rarely visits. In most states, the custody order and time share plan will affect child support—the more time you spend with your child, the lower the amount of support you owe—so it's important that the order reflects the time each parent actually spends with the child.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How many times does my ex have to violate a custody order before I can go back to court for help?
  • What can I do if my child doesn’t want to have visitation with the other parent?
  • How do I make my custody agreement enforceable?
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