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Modifying a Divorce Decree: What to Do and Expect

— June 13, 2023

It can be a complex and challenging process, but it is essential in situations where changes in circumstances require adjustments to the agreement.

Going through a divorce is an emotionally taxing experience. But even after the final decree has been issued, circumstances may arise that necessitate changes to the agreement. This is where a divorce decree modification comes into play. Divorce decree modification is a legal process through which the terms of a divorce decree are altered. The modifications can range from minor adjustments to significant overhauls, depending on the situation and typically cover issues such as child custody, visitation, child support, and alimony.

Some of the common reasons for seeking a divorce decree modification include co-parenting challenges and changes in the needs of the children. Although the process of obtaining a divorce decree modification varies depending on the state and the circumstances of the case, there are some general steps that are always a part of this process. Keep reading to learn how to modify a divorce decree in three steps. 

Step 1: File a Petition

The first step in seeking a divorce decree modification is filing a petition with the court. Depending on the specifics of your situation the method you follow to file a petition for modification can vary. Since this process can be challenging, it’s best to hire a family law attorney who can help you navigate the best approach for your case. Once your petition is filed, the other party will be notified and have the opportunity to respond. The other party may contest the modification, so be prepared to defend your case in court.

Below are some reasons that could qualify a post divorce modification.

  • Altered living situation: The living situation with one parent has changed significantly since the original custody order and is negatively impacting the child. Situations that count as substantial change of living circumstances are changes in housing quality or homelessness.
  • Relocation: If one parent intends to relocate a significant distance away from the other parent, a judge will likely modify the custody order to accommodate the change in location. 
  • Changes in Child’s Needs: If there are substantial changes in the child’s needs, such as the diagnosis of a complex physical, mental, or emotional condition modifications could be made to specify which parent is responsible for overseeing things like doctor appointments and prescriptions.
  • Violation of Current Custody Agreement: If either parent has violated the terms of the current custody agreement, a judge could modify the order to prevent further violations or provide additional protections for the child like holding a parent in contempt of court if they choose to ignore the current terms of agreement.
  • Safety Concerns: If there are legitimate safety concerns for a child when they are with a specific parent, a judge may modify a custody order to protect the child. This could involve limiting the number of days a child spends with a parent or completely removing them from the home in question.
  • Questions About Parental Fitness: If a parent has substance abuse issues, is suffering from severe mental health, or has certain criminal convictions a judge could consider this evidence of parent’s inability to care for a child and order modifications to the custody order. 

Step 2: Provide Evidence

Couple signing divorce papers; image by Karolina Grabowska, via
Couple signing divorce papers; image by Karolina Grabowska, via

As previously mentioned, custody arrangements are one of the most common reasons for post-divorce modification, making the focus of the requested petition about modifying the parent-child relationship. When attempting to modify existing custody rights, you will need to provide evidence that supports how the modification would be in the best interest of the child. This may include financial documents, employment records, school attendance records, medical records, documentation of the other parent refusing to follow the child custody order, and any other relevant information. During the hearing, both parties will have the opportunity to present their case and argue for or against the proposed modifications.

After the hearing, the judge will make a decision based on the evidence and arguments presented. If the judge approves the modification, a new order will be issued and the terms of the divorce agreement will be adjusted accordingly. 

Step 3: Enforce the Terms of your Divorce Decree

Once changes have been made to your decree, it will be your job to enforce the new terms. In order to do this successfully, you’ll want to do the following:

  • Communicate: The first step to enforcing the decree is to communicate with your ex-spouse. Try to resolve any issues or disputes through respectful and open communication. Consider starting with a written request, outlining the specific issue and what you want the other party to do to address it.
  • Schedule a Mediation: If communication is not effective, you can seek mediation. With the help of your attorneys and mediator, you can facilitate a discussion to find a mutually agreeable solution to your dispute.
  • Filing a Motion to Enforce: When all the other options fail, filing a motion with the court is necessary to enforce the decree. This step involves presenting more evidence that the other party has violated the terms of the decree and requesting that the court take action to enforce the agreement.

Final Thoughts on Modifying a Divorce Decree

A divorce decree modification is a legal process that allows for the alteration of the terms of a divorce decree. It can be a complex and challenging process, but it is essential in situations where changes in circumstances require adjustments to the agreement. If you are considering seeking a divorce decree modification, it is crucial to work with an experienced attorney and provide as much detail and evidence as possible to support your case.

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