Can I Modify Custody Arrangements Over Email? Lawyer Says...

This week, our family lawyers reviews the custody situation one mom finds herself in, when her son no longer wishes to keep the previous custody arrangement because his father lives in a run-down trailer.

The Question: Can I modify the custody arrangement over email instead of in court to save money?

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[MD/PA] Custody modification question

Without going on a nine page tirade, I'd like to know if it would be advisable to attempt to mediate with my ex-husband via email correspondence in an attempt to change our custody order. We currently are court ordered to share 50% custody.

Our son is 11, 12 in January, and he has expressed on numerous occasions to me that he doesn't want to live with his father anymore. He alleges his father speaks ill of me to his (father's) girlfriend in front of him, discusses his child support payments with him, tells him he has to choose who he wants to live with when he turns 13 using guilt and the child's own fear against him. Our son is ashamed to live at his dad's. He lives in a trailer on his parent's property, rent free. It's the same trailer we lived in while we were married, and his utter refusal to move is one of the reasons we're no longer married. There are holes in the floor, the windows are drafty, and the girlfriend feeds feral cats who then breed and the kittens get very sick. His father lives in PA, I live across the state line in Maryland. He goes to a Maryland school, doctor, and dentist.

The only reason he has the custody he does is because my lawyer was completely and utterly uninterested in helping me fight my ex when he sued for custody. She was massively unprepared and told me I could not afford her fee if it went to trial. I felt like I had no choice.

In light of the current situation, I would like to avoid seeing the inside of a court room at all costs if possible. I would like to try to reach out to my ex and attempt to work this out on our own. Is this possible?

The Answer: Yes, you could probably do much of the modification negotiation over email, but the modification would need to be filed in the originating court.

Yes, you (probably) can!

To change a custody order, there must be a "change in material status."

For example, if the trailer devolves into a ruin that's truly unfit for human habitation, then that living situation would be a "change in material status." At the time of the agreement, the child could live safely with the father; now, he can't.

However, you don't quite describe a situation that would prompt a call to Pennsylvania's CPS, so the state of the trailer might not be enough to file for a modification.

That said, your (now older) son's expressed desire to change the custody situation may be enough to file.

And, if both you and your ex agree that you want to change the custody arrangement, then that in itself represents a "change in material status" that qualifies for a custody modification.

As for whether you could negotiate a custody modification over email, well, you probably could -- especially if you think he's going to be reasonable about it.

However, it wouldn't be surprising if he decided to balk at changing who the primary custodial parent is -- especially if it means an increase in his child support obligations.

Remember: He's already sued once to get custody, so he might do it again. We suggest getting a lawyer who's experienced at both mediation and litigation... just in case things get nasty again.

You want someone willing to fight for you and your son this time, not just roll over as soon as they're asked to try harder.

Of course, that could just be borrowing trouble. Who knows? Maybe he thinks having his nearly-teenaged son around is cramping his bachelor pad parked on his parent's lawn with his new feral-cat-feeding girlfriend, and so would welcome an email overture for modification.

Once you two reach an agreement, you'll want an attorney to look it over to make sure it's "fair" and still in the child's best interest.

Then, you'll need to file it in the court which initially ordered the current custody arrangement. (Hopefully, that's in Maryland -- otherwise, all of this advice might not apply!)

The judge will then decide whether to accept the modification or not. If they accept, then the court issues a new court order, officially ratifying your agreement.

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Our general disclaimer: We're lawyers, but not necessarily your lawyer, and do not represent the individual who asked this question. We're providing this information for general educational purposes based on the publicly available information provided by the anonymous Internet user. Any number of details may change how this individual's attorney may pursue this legal situation, differently from how we suppose above. If you have a similar question, then you should consult with a lawyer about your specific situation to get a "real" response!