When Should I File a Petition to Modify?

Parents often ask a Salt Lake City family lawyer what needs to happen in order to modify their existing custody arrangement. Unfortunately, the answer is always “It depends.”

Utah law allows one or both parents of a child to petition a court to modify. They can modify an order that establishes joint legal or physical custody. A parent would have to show enough evidence that shows the circumstances of the child or parents have changed significantly. This is relevant if the changes have been made since the entry of the order that is being modified. They also have to show that the change of the previous order would be in the best interest of the child. A court will almost always require the disputing parents to mediate the dispute before the court decides the matter.

There Needs to be Substantial Change

In order to modify the existing custody arrangement, the moving party must demonstrate a material and substantial change since the entry of the previous order. Even if the proposed new arrangement would be more beneficial to the child, a court cannot consider the new arrangement without first finding a substantial and material change has occurred. In determining a possible modification, the court will consider a variety of factors.

These include (but are not limited to):

  • the past conduct and moral standards of each of the parties
  • the desires of the parties
  • the ability of a parent to have frequent and continuing contact with the other parent
  • the proximity of the homes of the parents
  • the ability of the parents to cooperate
  • any other factors the court finds relevant.

The court will give substantial weight to the existing order if the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted.


Whether or not a material and substantial changes have occurred is a factual determination. This varies from situation to situation and court to court. Courts have found that a parent’s relocation, a child starting school, and one parent continually preventing the other parent from exercising his or her parenting time is enough to justify a modification. However, a court will not automatically find those specific situations enough to justify a modification. It is important to consult with a Salt Lake City family law attorney before a parent files a petition to modify. This ensures the parent has a valid basis to modify. It is important to not file a petition to modify or answer frivolously. The court has the ability to assess the other parent’s attorney fees as a cost toward the offending parent.

Sarah ChristensenWhen Should I File a Petition to Modify?
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Recently Lost Your Car? See If You Can Modify Your Custody Agreement

When a court enters an order governing child custody it is always after hearing the presentation of evidence. The court will consider each of the facts and circumstances inherent to the particular situation of the family. This aids in making the orders accordingly.

That custody order becomes the governing and controlling schedule of custody unless and until a court modifies the order. Because the custody order is dependent on a particular set of facts, that order is the law of the case and will not be modified unless there is a showing of a “material and substantial change in circumstances.” See Hogge v. Hogge, 649 P.2d 51 (UTAH 1982).

Why Is “Best Interests of the Children” so Important?

In short, if one parent wishes to modify a custody award after a divorce decree or custody order has been entered, that party must be prepared to demonstrate a material and substantial change in circumstances. However, the question of whether there are such changes is only the first question to be asked. Only if there are such changes, the court will move on to the oft-quoted next question. Is it in the (let’s all say it together) “best interests of the children?”

Some common examples of changes in circumstances include parents remarrying, moving a significant distance away from the other parent, changing schools, among others. While these changes may constitute material changes in circumstances, they may not warrant a change in custody.

From the Court’s Point of View

The court will then consider if a change of custody is in the best interest of the child. If the court decides that the child’s friends, extended family, and school are so vital to their well-being that a change in custody would be worse for the child, the court won’t order it.

If the primary custodial parent moves and wishes to take the child with them, the court will consider several factors. They’ll look at the reasons for the move, the impact upon the child, and may order a change in custody to keep the child in his or her location in spite of primary parent’s relocation.

Each of these scenarios is fact sensitive. Anyone considering whether a modification of custody is appropriate should consult an attorney.

Sarah ChristensenRecently Lost Your Car? See If You Can Modify Your Custody Agreement
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