Can Child Custody be Changed?

Dad giving daughter piggy-back ride
November 19, 2020
|   updated:
January 2, 2024

It can take months of back-and-forth to come up with a parenting plan. Once it’s in place, most parents work hard to stick with it. But there can come a time when a current co-parenting plan stops working for one reason or another. When that happens, parents can adjust their child custody arrangement post litigation, if it continues to uphold the best interests of the child.

Whether co-parents need to seek court approval depends on the circumstances. When parents are abiding by a child custody order, they’ll have to ask the Family Court for a modification. The parent who files the petition has to show circumstances have changed, and a new schedule will benefit the child.

If the reason for the child custody modification is a parent’s alcohol abuse, Soberlink can help. As a comprehensive, remote alcohol monitoring system, parents can submit court-admissible evidence of their sobriety to maintain or get back parenting time or joint custody.

Factors Considered for Child Custody

Every state and U.S. territory requires judges to decide what’s in the child’s best interests when determining custody. There isn’t a definite standard for what’s in a child’s best interests, though. Instead, many states offer a list of factors or guidelines for a judge to consider.

Relevant factors include:

  • Each parent’s age and mental and physical health
  • Each parent’s ability to provide a stable and safe living environment
  • Which parent has so far provided daily care for the child
  • Each parent’s history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • Any history of neglect or abuse in a parent’s household
  • Each parent’s emotional ties with the child
  • Each parent’s willingness to support the child’s relationship with the other parent
  • The child’s physical, mental, and emotional needs
  • Depending on their age and maturity, the child's custody preference

Review your state’s specific statute. Some states require judges to consider every listed factor, while others offer them as suggestions. Additionally, several states don’t provide a list and give judges broad discretion in determining what’s best.

Why Will a Judge Change a Custody Order?

Mom with custody of son laughing while reading a book

Before a judge considers which parenting plan is in a child’s best interest, they have to decide whether there is an appropriate need for a new custody order at all. The parent asking for the modification has to reach a threshold before the judge orders one.

In many states, that threshold is showing there’s been a material or substantial change in circumstances. (Some states allow parents to review and alter a child custody order after a certain number of years.) Review your state’s requirements for when a modification is possible.

What is a material or substantial change in circumstances? It can be many things. Children’s needs evolve. A parent can receive a modification when showing a child’s physical, mental, emotional, and practical needs are significantly different than when the current order was put in place.

Other times a parent’s behavior or situation is the impetus for reworking the schedule. A parent’s actions might put the child’s physical or mental well-being in danger. They might not adhere to the parenting plan, either because they intentionally choose not to, or it’s become impracticable.

Another common reason is a relocation that would impact parenting exchanges. A parent who needs or wants to move a considerable distance from their co-parent has to ask the court’s permission to relocate.

There are several ways a judge or parents can revise a custody order, including changing the individual designated as the custodial parent. This parent has physical custody of the child most of the time. Legal custody—the right to make significant decisions for the child—could change, as well.

Another significant alteration is to parenting time. A parent might gain or lose days with their child. Or the amount of parenting time remains consistent but in a new schedule.

Another possible adjustment is a unique condition placed on parenting time. A judge might require a parent struggling to manage custody and alcohol abuse to implement a remote breathalyzer. Supervision by another adult also might be required if there are concerns regarding neglect or abuse.

Post-Judgment Modifications

Soberlink alcohol monitoring reminder text

A post-judgment modification (PJM) is an amendment to a child custody order handed down by a judge. Whether a parent wins a PJM for child custody is based on the state’s standard, but typically it requires proving:

  • There’s been a material or substantial change in circumstances, and
  • It’s in the best interests of the child.

What constitutes new circumstances ranges significantly, including parents agreeing to a new schedule, one parent violating the current order, or allegations of alcohol or drug abuse.

Either parent can file a motion in court to modify an existing child custody order, and co-parents always have the ability to decide on a better schedule together. When parents agree to a new arrangement, it usually must be submitted to the court and formalized by court order. The judge could refuse to approve the new co-parenting schedule, but there would need to be a significant reason as to why.

When one parent asks for a modification, they need evidence to prove both factors outlined above. A judge won’t rely on the parent’s word alone. Evidence can include statements from relatives, close family friends, teachers, coaches, doctors, social workers, counselors, and the child. When alcohol abuse is involved, parents can use an alcohol monitoring system to stay on track and accumulate evidence of their sobriety. Soberlink’s remote alcohol monitoring technology pairs discrete device options with court-admissible Advanced Reporting™ capabilities designed to catalog progress or dispel false accusations.


It is important to know that parents can change child custody when a current order isn’t working. When alcohol abuse is a concern, both parents can benefit from the parent in recovery submitting test results to the court. The parent can prove their ability to provide a safe, healthy, and happy environment for their child while rebuilding trust with their co-parent.

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