What is a Material Change in Circumstances in Child Custody?

By Mike Broemmel

Updated July 21, 2017

Mother and daughter seated on porch swing

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If you are the parent of a child subject to a custody order, you may wonder what needs to be done to change custody. The process for changing custody commences with filing a motion with the court where the initial custody order issued, according to Nolo. The court applies the standard of "material change in circumstances" in considering a motion to change custody.


The essential elements of a "material change of circumstances" involve a significant alteration of the situation surrounding the child and the custodial scheme, such that the minor's best interests no longer are protected and served. The change in circumstances jeopardizes the health, safety and welfare of the child. For example, a custodial parent who abuses mind altering substances jeopardizes the best interests of a child, warranting a new custody order from the court.


The function of the material change in circumstances standard is to limit alterations of custodial arrangements to limited situations. The function of the standard is to reserve custodial changes to situations where continuing the current arrangement would not be in the best interests of the minor child.


A prevalent misconception associated with child custody is that a mother is favored, both when establishing and when attempting to change custody orders. In other words, some people operate under the false idea that if mother desires to change a custody arrangement, she has a better chance of success than does a similarly situated man, according to "Child Custody A to Z " by Guy J. White. In reality, the law is gender neutral, and the material change or circumstances standard applies no matter the sex of the parent seeking change or the parent currently with custody.


The benefits of the material change of circumstances standard include providing a sense of stability for a child. Parents cannot walk into court and seek a change of custody without a substantial reason for taking that step. Consequently, a child is not left needlessly worrying that his routine, home and life in general will be disrupted abruptly and without at least a reasonable amount of prior warning, according to "Child Custody A to Z."


Do not file a motion to alter or amend a custody order unless you can demonstrate that serious reasons exist for requesting the chance. If you fail to meet the material change in circumstances standard via your motion and contentions, you run the risk of being assessed attorney fees and other costs incurred by the other parent in the case. Because of the complexity of changing custody, consider retaining an experienced attorney as a means of avoiding these types of negative consequences.