Removal: Parenting Across State Lines
by Valerie J. Botter
One of the hardest parenting decisions for separated and divorced parents is what happens when one parent needs or wants to move with the children out of state and far away. Changes in our economy and in our personal lives result in a myriad of arrangements for those of us parenting children across state lines.
In Massachusetts, the term referring to the request of a parent to move out of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with a child is known as the right to “remove” the child and the case is referred to as a “removal” case. A state statute provides that absent the agreement of the other parent, a divorced parent cannot remove a child to live out of state without the Court’s permission. What are the factors that a Court considers in a removal case? The Court will often support the decision of a primary custodial parent to move out of state if that parent can demonstrate a good faith reason for leaving and if the result of the move will benefit that parent to the degree that the benefit will flow to the child. While this may seem unfair to the non-custodial parent who is left behind, the existing case law regarding removal represents a child-focused line of decisions which places the needs of the child over the needs of the parents.
Over the years, I have represented clients in removal cases on both sides of the issue and mediated removal disputes between parents. For a father who has grudgingly accepted his role as non-custodial parent and enjoys regular contact with his child each week, the news that his ex-wife and her new husband are moving to Texas represents a huge roadblock to the natural development of that father’s relationship with his child. Factors such as the age of the child, whether or not non-stop flights are available from airports near each parent’s home, the cost of air fare, and how supportive the mother is of the child’s relationship with the father, will affect how successful an arrangement can be negotiated and maintained. I always urge non-custodial parents to visit their children in their home state at least once each year, to attend children’s performances and games, to schedule parent/teacher meetings by phone if they cannot attend, and to support their children’s lives in their home state. While this can be awkward and expensive, the message to the child when a parent makes that extra effort is that both parents are part of that child’s life, regardless of where the child resides.
A custodial parent may want to relocate to her home state following a divorce. She may have no family, few close friends, and little income potential where she lived during her marriage. Requiring her to stay in the area against her will may create such emotional and financial stress that the child will be adversely affected. If she moves, however, it is important for her to understand that the child’s vacation time should be maximized with the other parent since those weeks may present the only opportunity for long-distance travel and an extended stay in the other parent’s home. Ideally, both parents should take steps to foster deep connections between a child and both of his or her parents and recognize that creative solutions must sometimes be found when circumstances change and one parent needs to move far away. Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, texting, and other technology offer an inexpensive supplement to telephone contact for older children and teenagers. Establishing and maintaining a child’s social relationships with other children in both neighborhoods helps children feel and stay rooted in two communities.
My husband’s ex-wife moved their children to Ohio when they were in first and second grades. Our parenting time occurred on long weekends, during vacation periods, and summers. We spent a lot of time at the airport and counted the days between each of their frequent and precious trips to Massachusetts. It was heartbreaking being so separated from them and it was hard on the children as well, particularly on our son. That said, my husband and I could not deny how their mother’s happiness flowed to and benefited the children as she settled into her life in the state where she grew up and her parents resided, and as she established a career, re-married, and cared for the children. Our children grew very close to their maternal grandparents and saw them frequently.
When our Ohio children entered high school, it became increasingly difficult for them to come to Massachusetts for long weekends and spring break as academic demands, sports team commitments, and jobs understandably gained greater priority. As a result, we traveled to to Ohio more often. We stayed at a modest hotel near where our children lived with their mother, stepfather, and much younger half-brothers. Weekends were spent watching movies, doing homework, and using the hotel pool and gym. We took them shopping for clothes and shoes and other necessities, got together with their friends, and attended our son’s baseball games and daughter’s track meets.
In 2013, our son graduated from high school in Ohio and moved in with us. He graduated from the Honors College at UMass Amherst four years later, and we loved having him near us while he was in college. His sister remained in Ohio, attended college in Cincinnati and is now in an MD/PhD program at the same university. My daughter who attended Northampton High School went to college in Portland, Maine and then moved to LA for her dream job. Our youngest is in the Honors College at UMass Amherst and we are happy to have her nearby, at least for a few more years. We are blessed by these wonderful children and so grateful that our relationships survived the geographical and time absences of their childhoods. And our experiences raising our Ohio kids helped us adjust to our local daughter attending college in Maine and then moving to California.
It is most important not to react to a proposed move by either parent as something she is “doing” to the other parent. As individuals, we made decisions and live according to our own needs and desires, not usually to make another person’s life difficult. Being a good parent isn’t always easy but it’s certainly easier to do from a happy, centered place with community support and financial security. When one parent moves children far away, the move irrevocably changes the nature of the relationship with the parent who stays behind, and significantly limits that parent’s ability to be a regular part of a child’s life. Balancing a parent’s need to move and the benefits of the move for the children, with the unavoidable changes to the children’s relationship with the other parent, is a difficult task for parents, lawyers, mediators, and judges. Each family situation is unique and must be considered carefully from the perspective of what is best for the child.
Email Valerie or call 413-586-8651.