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What Constitutes a Violation of a Custody Agreement?

Emotions can run high after couples split up, and some parents may express their bitter feelings towards each other by ignoring the rules of their child custody arrangements. But if disputes arise, a parent may wonder, what constitutes a violation of a custody agreement? And if your ex is violating the custody agreement, what can you do?

Common Violations of Custody Agreements

Some common violations include:

Refusing to Respect Visitation Rights: This is a serious and frequent problem for many divorced couples, whether they have a joint custody agreement, where they share physical and/or legal custody of the child, or a sole custody arrangement, where one parent has both legal and physical custody of a child. When refusing to respect visitation rights, parents may bring children back later than they are supposed to or deliberately schedule appointments and activities to conflict with scheduled visitation.

A violation of joint custody agreements can be a particularly difficult situation, since each parent generally spends a considerable amount of time with the child, and parents may interact with each other frequently. In many states, regularly refusing to respect visitation rights-along with other problems-could be grounds for changing the custody agreement.

Taking the Child Without Alerting the Other Parent: In some cases, this can reach the level of kidnapping. According to the FBI "By law (specifically the 1982 Missing Childrens Act), [a missing child is] any person younger than 18 whose whereabouts are unknown to his or her legal custodian." When a child is abducted and taken across state lines or out of the country, the FBI can become involved.

If your ex or another family member has taken your child without your permission and you have concerns that they may have been kidnapped, alert law enforcement authorities and your divorce attorney immediately.

Badmouthing the Other Parent: Courts do not approve of one parent trying to alienate the children from the other parent. Generally, the courts expect both parents to not talk badly about each other to the child. If the other parent is doing this, you may need to go before a court for more specific language in the custody order or for a contempt of court proceeding.

When you find out your ex is saying terrible or untrue things about you to your children, it is tempting to badmouth them right back. However, avoid doing so at all costs-remember, this person is still your childs father or mother. When parents are negative about each other in front of their children, it puts the children in a terrible situation, and the court may consider this poor behavior if disputes over the custody agreement arise.

Disagreements Over Religion: Religion is another issue that should be spelled out in the custody agreement. If one parent refuses to abide by the agreement and baptizes the child in another religion or brings the children to services in another faith, such actions may constitute a violation of the child custody agreement. Courts cannot force parents to bring their children to the services of a particular religion, but they may stop the parent from taking the child to those services.

Some courts may decide not to get involved in religious disputes, though, and instead will allow each parent to make their own choices about religion when the child is with that parent.

Personal Habits Such as Smoking: Courts consider the "best interests" of the child when making custody arrangements. In some cases, a habit such as smoking may be enough to violate a custody agreement, particularly if the child has asthma or other sensitivities to smoke. In such cases, it is a good idea to limit potentially troublesome behavior around the child, or, even better, to break the questionable habit completely.

Know What Constitutes a Violation of the Custody Agreement

Normally, a court will only change a custody agreement if one of the parents has made a serious violation of the custody agreement. When considering a change, the court will consider the best interests of the child, just as it did when approving the original agreement. It is generally better to try to work out situations with your ex, or to involve a counselor or mediator before going back to the courts to amend the custody agreement.

However, if you think your ex's behavior is severe enough to threaten the best interests of your child, contact your lawyer immediately. Also, be sure to document every potential violation. This can help your attorney argue your case before a judge if you try to amend your child custody agreement.