Scheduling Parenting Time When Parents Live in Different States

joint custody and relocation

Parenting time is essential to keeping a child’s relationship with both parents strong when parents live in different households. What is now called “parenting time” was once commonly referred to as “visitation.” The term was changed because words matter; one parent shouldn’t feel like a mere “visitor” in their child’s life. “Parenting time” more accurately reflects what is supposed to be taking place: a parent and child simply being together. In other words, parenting time should feel like day-to-day life. But what happens when you’re co-parenting in different states? 

Most parents, of course, start out in the same state as each other and their children. They may even plan to stay near each other after a breakup or divorce. But, as John Lennon famously said, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. It’s common for one parent to accept a job in another state. A parent may also move out-of-state for a new marriage or relationship, or to move closer to other family members. 

Whatever the reason, when parents are co-parenting in different states, they face the challenge of creating a parenting time schedule that works for them, and most importantly, for their child. 

Is There Standard Parenting Time for Out-of-State Parents?

Unless one parent lives just over the state line from the other, it’s going to be difficult or impossible to follow the common 2/2/5/5 parenting schedule, or any other parenting schedule in which the child transitions frequently between the two homes. If the parents live within driving distance of each other, it may still not be practical to drive back and forth on a frequent basis. If the parents live so far apart that it’s necessary for the child to fly back and forth between them, the cost of plane tickets can quickly become burdensome.

Most parents want to minimize transportation time and expenses, and give the child time to settle in and feel at home when they are with each parent. Accordingly, parents typically agree to longer stretches of parenting time with fewer transitions between households.

In most situations, it is in children’s best interests for parents to work out a parenting schedule on their own rather than rely on the court, as parents are in the best position to know what meets their family’s unique needs. If they are having difficulty agreeing on what that is, family mediation may be an option for resolving the issue.

Modifying Parenting Time When One Parent Lives Out of State

A parenting time order should be modified when it is in the child’s best interest to do so. This is typically the case when one parent is moving out of state and the old parenting time order will no longer work.  If the change in parenting time is substantial (as is likely with an out-of-state move), the court may order a  full evidentiary hearing unless the parents have mutually agreed on a new parenting time schedule. 

Minnesota courts will generally modify a parenting time order to reflect a new agreement made by the parents unless doing so would not be in the best interests of the child. However, if there is no existing custody order to modify, one needs to be established. 

The Importance of Custody and Parenting Time Orders

If a divorcing couple has minor children, their divorce decree must address child custody and parenting time. If parents are unmarried and there is no existing court order, they are free to make whatever parenting plan they can agree on. However, for that plan to be enforceable, it needs to be incorporated into a court order. There is simply too much potential for things to go wrong with an informal agreement when parents live far apart. 

Long drives to transport the child that initially seemed reasonable can quickly become burdensome. One parent may decide they need to have the child with them for a holiday that was initially promised to the other parent. Sooner or later, it is likely that one parent will violate the agreement. Unless the agreement is part of a court order, the parent who wants to enforce it has no recourse other than to start a court case to establish custody and parenting time. 

Which Court Decides Parenting Time When Parents Live in Different States?

If you live in Minnesota and the other parent lives in North Dakota, which state can establish or change parenting time? That depends on the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), a federal law. 

In essence, the law says that only one state can make a final custody and parenting time determination; other states must uphold the law of the first state. If there is an existing custody order in Minnesota, Minnesota continues to have the exclusive right to modify custody as long as either parent or the child resides in Minnesota. If there is no existing custody order and the parents live in different states, custody must be decided in the child’s home state. 

The UCCJEA defines a child’s home state as the state in which a child lived with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least six consecutive months (not counting temporary absences, like vacations) before the start of a child custody case. If no state meets that criterion, a custody case may be filed in a state where the child has significant connections, or where the child has been taken out of fear of abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

In short, if you have a child custody order and you want to modify it, you need to modify it in the state where the order was made. If you don’t have a child custody order and you want one, you need to get one from the child’s home state. 

The UCCJEA is a complex law to address a complex problem. If you have questions about child custody when parents live in different states, or about joint custody and relocation, please contact Mundahl Law to schedule a consultation.