Modification Mayhem; How to Steer Clear

Child custody modification cases are always challenging for a variety of reasons.  First, it is important to recognize that Chancellors are inclined not to “rock the boat” by making drastic decisions about child placement without very good reasons.  They, as they should, need a parent seeking modification to present overwhelming reasons for a sudden change that affects every aspect of a child’s life.  Haphazard, swift decisions regarding children are frowned upon and avoided at all costs. 

I want to focus on a common scenario which occurs and attempt to illustrate the divergent paths it presents.  Quite often, a child turns 12 and is able to voice a preference to the court about where they want to live.  Although they do not get to “choose” (a common misconception), their voice plays a critical role in triggering and potentially effectuating a child-custody claim.  Although the maturity level of the child is not a technical factor in the weight of their preference, it will always play a critical role in the outcome of the modification claim.

I want to share with you a custody horror story, at least from the perspective of a former client.  Often the best lessons are had by failure, not success.  Many years ago, I was hired to prosecute a child custody claim in Rankin County, Mississippi on behalf of a mom whose son had recently turned 12.  We all met at my office and the child was quite clear about the strength of his desire to live with his mom.  I did not question his sincerity for a moment. 

Fast forward several months and we finally have our day in court at a final hearing (trial).  I called the young man to the stand and he performed as I expected.  When my opposing counsel had his shot at making his case, the child fell apart.  It went something like this:  “Young man, why is it that you want to live with your mom all of the sudden?”.  A fair question, right?  The boy then said, more or less, “My dad makes me go to bed at 10 o’clock and eat grilled chicken and vegetables.  I hate vegetables.  When I am with my mom she lets me do pretty much whatever I want.  I can have as much pizza as I want and I can play video games while she’s busy doing other stuff.  My dad is just too strict.”  Whew.  I heard the sound of my case deflate right in front of me.  The odds of winning were nil.  My client was upset and so was I, but he was just a kid after all.

I have seen first-hand how children will attempt to please both parents.  I have had clients hire me on modifications of custody only to realize later that their child was telling their ex that they wanted to stay with them.  Kids have a natural defense mechanism to make both parents happy.  They will tell both that they want to be with them.  It borders on dishonesty, but for the love of God, they are only kids and do not understand adult problems.  This is the way that they cope.  It is frustrating and can cost a client several wasted dollars, but nonetheless I understand the plight of the children torn between two parents that they dearly love.  We must, as the adults in the room, understand how to avoid this mayhem in the first place.  Our children deserve it. 

My advice is simple.  The mature children are going to be far more likely to stay with the parent they prefer.  I doubt many of them are 12.  Once a child has consistently voiced a mature, rational desire to stay with you, consider speaking to a lawyer about a change of custody.  Chancellors are privy to the fact that children are not always able to decide what is best for them.  You can avoid wasting thousands on a failed modification claim by allowing your child to come to their own conclusion. Be patient and kind.  Remember that they are feeling pressure from every direction.  And in the end, respect them and their innocence.  One day they will face adult problems.  It is your job, as a parent, to make it later than sooner.

Matthew Poole is a single father and Jackson, Mississippi Custody and Divorce Attorney with 16 years of experience.  He has managed over 1,300 domestic cases.

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