Suing to Relocate: How and Why to Avoid It

You’re free from your marriage, and it feels like you should be cut free from the need to consult with your once-spouse about the most basic decisions in your life, such as where to live.  But the reality of today’s co-parenting means you do remain tied.

If one of you decides to move out of state and insists on taking the kids, this action can be a scary reminder that even a good divorce can go off the rails, as Season 12 of the hit medical drama Grey’s Anatomy shows.  Suing to relocate means no one wins.

Raising kids as divorced parents is not a static state.  Circumstances change.  People remarry.  They lose jobs and get new offers.  Loyalties shift.  In divorce, as in a marriage, parents must constantly adjust not only to the changes in our own lives but also to the direction, desires and fortunes of our children’s other parent. 

We also need to remind ourselves, perhaps often and over the years, that we are not on opposite sides.

We are all on the side of our children.   

On episode 22 of Grey’s Anatomy, after cooperatively co-parenting their daughter and working together as surgeons for years in Seattle, two formerly married women, Callie and Arizona, see their good divorce disintegrate.  Why? Because Callie decides she wants to move to New York City.  Callie’s ex-wife, Arizona, does not want to move to New York. 

Suddenly, after a half-dozen years of decent cooperation, these two parents can’t find a solution.  They hire lawyers, wind up in court, and raise the stakes to a fight over sole custody. 

One woman in this family is going to lose her physical and perhaps legal relationship with her own daughter—because they could not come to agreement themselves, and turned to a judge to decide. 

In her quest to win custody, Callie’s team attacks Arizona’s character, painting an unfair picture of her as a responsibility-shrinking woman who puts her job and social life above her child.  In the scene, diligent surgeon Arizona gets a 911-page while on the stand, and leaves the courtroom to go to the hospital and save another child’s life.  Even though this might look like “proof” that Callie is right—her ex prioritizes work over family—it doesn’t look that way to the judge.  He awards sole custody to Arizona, the parent who isn’t threatening the child’s relationship with her other parent by proposing to move. 

The decision leaves Callie sobbing, “How the hell did this happen?”

It happened because she went to court, and the judge decided that taking the child 3,000 miles away from one parent wasn’t in the best interest of the child.  Courts today follow something called the “best interests of the child,” a doctrine that states that kids do best when maintaining an active relationship with both parents (as opposed to the ’70s- and ’80s-era belief that young children do best with their mothers).  The goal today, generally, is to have both parents involved.  If one parent threatens that arrangement by seeking to move far away with the child, most judges would need pretty damning evidence to support that move.

Your best bet is to try to work with your ex to get her to agree with your desired move.  While she may seem absolutely unwilling to budge, think about how your desired move could benefit your child and, ideally, your ex.  Present a “case” that shows the move in a positive light for all of you, and demonstrates that you’re thinking about your whole family, not just yourself.  With the growing number of people working for themselves or virtually, your ex may be able to relocate, too. 

You can also try offering up a compromise you’re willing to make.  And give your ex time to consider.  Even if it takes longer than you’d like, you may be able to come up with an agreement together that works for you both.  If she won’t budge, in many cases, you’ll be happier if you turn down that promotion, move to a smaller house, or do whatever else you can to stay put and and/or avoid going to court.  If there is any other option besides going to court to fight over relocation, take it.

If you do have a long-distance parenting plan, there are certainly ways to stay connected, and more so than any time in the past.  While talking on the phone may be difficult for a hyper child, video chatting gives her a face.  Some parents read bedtime stories over Skype, play online games with kids, or Face Time from interesting or unusual locations. 

Here are three good ways to prevent a Grey’s Anatomy court battle over your children: 

1. Acknowledge that custody arrangements change. 

Yes, you need to create a clear, fair parenting plan that’s not too emotionally taxing or complicated.  The ideal lets the child see both parents regularly without having too many transitions every week.  But remember that custody arrangements generally evolve with time.  A schedule that worked when your child was two may not be necessarily when he’s 17.  Age affects what they want and need, as do changes in our own lives such as a new spouse, a new job, or new interests.  “Child custody and parenting time are frequently modified over the years due to a change in either party’s or the child’s circumstances,” says New Jersey-based family lawyer Stuart Minion. 

2. Hold an annual state-of-the-family conversation.

On Grey’s Anatomy, Arizona and Callie wind up duking it out in court, but another couple on the show, Jackson and April, project into the future and discuss changes that might affect how they parents.  They agree to make a parenting plan, and adapt to what’s optimal for the child over time.  This is a good conversation to model.  You don’t have to do it in a bar before your child is even born, as Jackson and April do, but it’s a great idea to agree to meet regularly, perhaps once a year, maybe during holiday planning, to check in and reassess how your co-parenting is going, and what changes you might want to make.  If possible, have a regularly scheduled non-urgent conversation to reassess your arrangement discuss possible tweaks. 

3. Remember that you’re on the same team.

In her desire to move to the Big Apple, Callie forgot that she was on Team Sofia.  Vilifying her child’s other mother does not benefit her daughter, and she knows it deep down.  “I feel gross,” Callie says after her first day in court.  For good reason.

The other problem with threatening to sue in court to move away with your children?  You’re not likely to win.  “A parent who wants to move a child a significant distance away must prove the move is in ‘good faith’ (that it’s not just to create distance between a child and one parent) and will meet a child’s needs,” says Minion.  In New Jersey, for example, the judge asks how the move will impact the child’s educational, health, and leisure opportunities.  Will the move allow the non-custodial parent to maintain a full and continuous relationship with the child?  How will the move affect a child’s relationship with extended family?  Will the parent who’s moving support a continued relationship with the other parent? 

Sometimes a court will approve a child’s relocation, and this generally changes a custody arrangement, typically by granting one parent longer chunks of custody during the summer and school breaks, according to Minion. 

On the Grey’s Anatomy, the judge does a pretty good job of summing up the best way to think about the ongoing cooperation necessary in co-parenting.  “If you’re testifying, remember, this is not a popularity contest,” he says.  “You are not choosing sides.  We’re all on the same side.  The side of a six-year-old child.” 


Laura Brienza is the author of two nonfiction books for Globe Pequot Press: Discovering Vintage Washington, DC and New York's Historic Restaurants, Inns, and Taverns. Her writing has also appeared in Flavor & The Menu, Feminine Collective, 1st Amendment Media/IndyBuild, The Date Diaries, and she is a Weekend Reporter for Obsessed With Everything. Her plays have been produced and developed by The Lark Play Development Center, the Kennedy Center, and Luna Stage, where her most recent play Old Love New Love was hailed for its "sharp writing" and "poignant moments" by The New York Times.