I've had numerous clients that have gone through extensive litigation to get a final custody order. But is it really ever 'final?'
By Attorney Alyssa Knisely, Child Custody Attorney, Harrisburg, PA
In PA and every other state, custody orders are never final. That is they can be modified at any time by a party to a custody action. This includes natural parents and other third parties, such as grandparents. This is because a child custody matter is to be reflective of the 'best interests' of the child(ren) and, like a child, may change over time.
The law of PA used to be that a 'substantial change' in the circumstances underwhich the current custody order was issued had to have changed. This is no longer the law. No substantial change in living circumstances, arrangements, health, jobs, or child's desires, among many things, needs to be alleged or proven in order to effectuate a modification. However, the courts will likely frown upon a 'half-cocked' request to modify if there has not been any real significant reason to modify or change the order. The party requesting modification should have a good reason to do so or the request will likely fail.
Contempt Proceedings should come first before modification if the other party won't abide by the order
But, what happens when the other party, for whatever reason, just flat out refuses to abide by the order? This may be a reason to modify the order, certainly. However, it's more likely that the party who needs enforcement of the order should file a Petition for Contempt of the Order. Most courts do not often change the Order, even if a party is found in contempt. Further, the finding of contempt may not even include counsel fees and court costs imposed on the contemptuous party, but it needs to be done. It's a slow process, no doubt. However, the other party needs to know that you are serious about the custody order and that they will have to abide by the letter and spirit of the order. After at least one contempt finding, the court is likely (doesn't mean every case) to begin ordering court costs and fees against the party who willfully violates the order. Further, the may even begin to alter the order a bit so the breaching party loses time with the child(ren). Every case is different and has unique dynamics. However, one thing is certain, if you do not even attempt to change the other party's behavior, it will not change for the better.