By: Melanie Eisenhart
Understanding how a court will evaluate a petition for modification to a custody order can make a significant difference in the outcome of that court’s ruling. In Virginia, courts initially decide custody based on what is in the best interest of the child. To determine this, a judge will consider the following ten factors on a case-by-case basis from Va. Code Ann. § 20-124.3:
- The age and physical and mental condition of the child, giving due consideration to the child’s changing developmental needs.
- The age and physical and mental condition of each parent. See Huck v. Huck, No. 1604-14-1, 2015 Va. App. LEXIS 184, at *6 (Va. Ct. App. June 2, 2015) (unpublished) (comparing the evidence related to the mental health of both parents, including the father’s anger and bullying and the mother’s anxiety and depression, the court refused to favor one parent over the other in consideration of this factor).
- The relationship existing between each parent and each child, giving due consideration to the positive involvement with the child’s life, the ability to accurately assess and meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of the child.
- The needs of the child, giving due consideration to other important relationships of the child, including but not limited to siblings, peers and extended family members. See Forbes v. Forbes, No. 1081-12-1, 2013 Va. App. LEXIS 176, at *6 (Va. Ct. App. June 11, 2013) (unpublished) (denying the father’s motion to modify custody because the mother had a family support system living nearby).
- The role that each parent has played and will play in the future, in the upbringing and care of the child.
- The propensity of each parent to actively support the child’s contact and relationship with the other parent, including whether a parent has unreasonably denied the other parent access to or visitation with the child.
- The relative willingness and demonstrated ability of each parent to maintain a close and continuing relationship with the child, and the ability of each parent to cooperate in and resolve disputes regarding matters affecting the child.
- The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of reasonable intelligence, understanding, age and experience to express such a preference. See Sims-Bernard v. Bernard, No. 2090-12-2, 2013 Va. App. LEXIS 282, at *10 (Va. Ct. App. Oct. 8, 2013) (unpublished) (refusing the mother’s request for custody modification because, though her daughters stated a preference to living with their mother, this was not in their best interest due to the mother’s “mental abnormalities” in attitude towards their father).
- Any history of family abuse as that term is defined in § 16.1-228 or sexual abuse. If the court finds such a history, the court may disregard the factors in subdivision 6; See Craven v. Williamson, No. 1023-11-4, 2012 Va. App. LEXIS 2, at *3 (Va. Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2012) (unpublished) (determining that evidence presented at trial indicated a history of abuse when the father frequently lost his temper and yelled at his children, in addition to him “stomping” on one child in anger).
- Such other factors as the court deems necessary and proper to the determination.
Once a custody order is entered, the parent seeking modification ordinarily must establish both that the circumstances have materially changed since the last custody order and that the best interests of the child require a modification of custody. To determine this, the court looks at the evidence presented and compares it to the ten best interest factors discussed above. Most importantly, while making this decision courts are not required to weigh each of the ten factors equally or to elaborate on the amount of weight or consideration it gives each factor. However, the court’s findings must be supported by evidence on the record or this will be considered an abuse of the court’s discretion.
An example of how courts may evaluate the ten best interest factors independently and in conjunction with one another can be found in Bostick v. Bostick-Bennett. In this case, the court compared the father’s degree of parental stability (factor three) with the mother’s ability to actively support the child’s relationship with the other parent (factor six), and initially granted sole custody to the father because it found that he could offer the child a more stable living environment. The mother, though not unfit, could not provide the same level of support to the child as the father; however, the court allowed for visitation to foster and encourage the relationship between mother and child. A short time later, when the father petitioned the court to relocate his child to North Carolina, his request was denied because he failed to prove a material change in circumstances that would warrant the child’s removal from Virginia. Looking at the evidence presented, the court concluded that maintaining a relationship between the child and her mother would be in the best interest of the child, and that this relationship would be jeopardized if the father was granted his request to move to another state.
Material Change in Circumstances
While the ten statutory factors are important to the modification of a custody order, a petitioner must first show the occurrence of a material change in circumstances. Next the petitioner should focus on these factors to demonstrate that a modification of custody is in the best interest of the child.
Virginia Code § 20-108 sets out one way for courts to determine if a material change has occurred by stating that the “intentional withholding of visitation of a child from the other parent without just cause may constitute a material change in circumstances justifying a change of custody in the discretion of the court.” A change in circumstances is not limited to negative events that may occur in the home of the custodial parent, though. A material change may also broadly include changes that the child experiences, such as their level of maturity or any special educational needs, or may include positive changes to the circumstances of the noncustodial parent, such as remarriage or the increased ability to provide a stable home environment. Ultimately, however, no change in custody will be allowed if the change in circumstances is not in the best interest of the child.
In Haring v. Hackmer, the mother alleged a material change in circumstances occurred that would justify modification to the custody order that originally granted the father sole custody of their child. Namely, the mother argued that the father’s circumstances had declined when he remarried, moved his daughter to a new school due to relocation within the state, his financial situation had deteriorated, he had an unstable employment history, the daughter’s mental and physical health had deteriorated since living with him, he allowed his daughter’s medical insurance to lapse, and had not ensured that their daughter received proper medical and dental care. Conversely, the mother alleged that her circumstances had improved because she relocated within the state and had established a successful insurance business. Considering the evidence presented at trial, the court found no material change in circumstances, and the mother’s motion for modification was denied.
Courts have also found that the following conditions do not indicate a material change in circumstances:
- Rude behavior or inefficient communication regarding visitation scheduling between parents. Thurmond v. Gropper, 45 Va. Cir. 168, 172 (Va. Cir. Ct. 1998).
- The custodial parent’s denial of visitation or the child’s statement that he does not want to return to the custodial parent’s home. Heretick v. Cintron, No. 1377-00-2, 2001 Va. App. LEXIS 172, at *9 (Va. Ct. App. Apr. 3, 2001) (unpublished).
- A change in work schedule allowing a parent to work from home and care for the child, an increase in the length of a subsequent marriage, or the custodial parent’s home being located in a neighborhood with few children. Humphries v. Davis, No. 0775-98-2, 1998 Va. App. LEXIS 635, at *4-5 (Va. Ct. App. Dec. 8, 1998) (unpublished).
In contrast, courts have found that the following conditions do indicate a material change in circumstances:
- Making and then suddenly canceling plans to relocate to another country at the detriment of causing an unstable living environment for the child. Laing v. Walker, No. 1693-94-3, 1995 Va. App. LEXIS 592, at *5 (Va. Ct. App. July 18, 1995) (unpublished).
- Showing by the noncustodial parent can show that the remarriage of the noncustodial parent has provided for a more stable living environment, that the child has become increasingly withdrawn since living with custodial parent, and that the child preferred to live with the noncustodial parent. Turner v Turner, 3 Va. App. 31, 34, 348 S.E.2d 21, 23 (1986).
- Failure by the custodial parent to sufficiently support the children when their grades declined, when compared to the noncustodial parent who frequently met with the children’s teachers. Schoonover v. Schoonover, No. 0554-99-3, 1999 Va. App. LEXIS 518, at *5-6 (Va. Ct. App. Sept. 7, 1999) (unpublished).
Without a material change in circumstances and evidence that a change in custody is in the best interest of the child, a court will not grant the petition to modify custody.
 Keel v. Keel, 225 Va. 606, 611, 303 S.E.2d 917, 921 (1983).
 Cintron v. Long, No. 2169-99-2, 2000 Va. App. LEXIS 487, at *11 (Va. Ct. App. July 5, 2000) (unpublished). See generally Mason v. Moon, 9 Va. App. 217, 220, 385 S.E.2d 242, 244 (1989) (noting that “in custody disputes between a natural parent and a nonparent, the law presumes the best interest of the child will be served when in the custody of the natural parent”).
 Bostick v. Bostick-Bennett, 23 Va. App. 527, 478 S.E.2d 319 (1996).
 Id. at 530, 478 S.E.2d at 320.
 Id. at 536, 478 S.E.2d at 323.
 Id. at 530, 478 S.E.2d at 320.
 Id. at 534, 478 S.E.2d at 322.
 Keel, 225 Va. at 612, 303 S.E.2d at 921.
 No. 1085-08-4, 2009 Va. App. LEXIS 402 (Va. Ct. App. Sept. 8, 2009) (unpublished).
 Id. at *5.
 Id. at *6.