Every family experiences changes over time. In some cases, changes can mean a big move, a move which means finding a new home, a new job, and a new school. When parents are separated or divorced, relocation of a minor child can seriously impact the relationship between the child and the parent who is not moving. Oklahoma has a special law that sets out what has to happen when a parent wishes to move with their minor child.
Overview of Oklahoma's Relocation Statute
When a parent wants to move their child over 75 miles away from their primary residence, the relocation law is triggered, requiring the parent who wishes to move to meet special criteria and then take some very specific actions.
Some of the criteria include:
- The proposed change must impact the principal residence of the child, which means either the location designated by a court to be the child’s primary residence or, if there is no court order, the location where the child has primarily lived for at least 6 months.
- The parent who wishes to relocate must be “a person who has the right to establish the principal residence of the child.” This can mean the custodial parent if one parent has sole custody. It can also mean a parent who has joint custody of a child if that parent has been determined to be the child’s “primary physical custodian” (more on this below).
The parent desiring to relocate is required to give the other parent and anyone else with visitation rights (such as a grandparent if grandparent visitation has been ordered) written notice of their intent to move. The written notice generally must be sent at least 60 days prior to the move. The notice has to be sent by mail and it must include:
- The intended new residence, including the specific address, if known,
- The mailing address, if not the same as the residential address,
- The home telephone number, if known,
- The date of the intended move or proposed relocation,
- A brief statement of the specific reasons for the proposed relocation of a child,
- A proposal for a revised schedule of visitation with the child, and
- A warning to the nonrelocating parent that an objection to the relocation must be made within thirty (30) days or the relocation will be permitted.
The parent who wishes to relocate must give also give updates in writing if any of the information changes.
Failure to provide any of this information could result in the relocation being denied by a judge. However, there are exceptions to these requirements in cases of domestic violence.
Once the nonrelocating parent receives the notice, if the nonrelocating parent does not agree to the proposed relocation, he or she must file a written objection to the proposed relocation in court. The objection must be filed within 30 days of receipt of the notice, or any objection is waived and the relocation will be permitted. Note that the relocation notice does not have to be filed in court, only the objection must be filed (if there is an objection).
What Happens if the Relocation is Opposed
If a parent objects to a proposed relocation of their minor child, then the judge must hold a trial. The judge can hold two trials: a temporary relocation hearing and a final relocation hearing.
At the hearing, the parent who is trying to relocate must show that their proposed relocation is in “good faith.” If they prove good faith, then the nonrelocating parent has to show that the proposed relocation is not in the best interest of the child.
The judge is required to consider specific factors in every contested relocation case:
- The nature, quality, extent of involvement, and duration of the child’s relationship with the person proposing to relocate and with the nonrelocating person, siblings, and other significant persons in the child’s life,
- The age, developmental stage, needs of the child, and the likely impact the relocation will have on the child’s physical, educational, and emotional development, taking into consideration any special needs of the child,
- The feasibility of preserving the relationship between the nonrelocating person and the child through suitable visitation arrangements, considering the logistics and financial circumstances of the parties,
- The child’s preference, taking into consideration the age and maturity of the child,
- Whether there is an established pattern of conduct of the person seeking the relocation, either to promote or thwart the relationship of the child and the nonrelocating person,
- Whether the relocation of the child will enhance the general quality of life for both the custodial party seeking the relocation and the child, including but not limited to financial or emotional benefit or educational opportunity,
- The reasons of each person for seeking or opposing the relocation, and
- Any other factor affecting the best interest of the child.
Analysis of Relocation Critera
Who qualifies as a "person who has the right to establish the principal residence of the child?"
When a parent has sole legal and physical custody, the law is clear that the sole custodian is “a person who has the right to establish the principal residence of the child” and has the right to initiate the process for relocation of their minor child. Until 2017, there was a dispute amongst lawyers and judges about whether a parent with joint legal custody could relocate with their minor child over the objection of the other parent. One set of lawyers and judges took the position that in a joint custody situation either parent could relocate, as they had equal legal rights, and another set took the position that when parents had joint custody, neither parent had the right to relocate their minor child. The latter position prevailed in 2017 in a case called Boatman v. Boatman. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that when parents have joint custody and one of them wants to relocate with a minor child from the relationship, the judge must first determine which parent is the “primary physical custodian” of the minor child. This step may not be necessary in joint custody cases where the joint custody plan already identifies one parent as “primary.”
What is a “Good Faith” proposal for relocating a minor child?
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has said that “good faith” is “an honest intention to abstain from taking any unconscientious advantage of another.” In relocation cases, the following reasons for proposing a move have been determined to be in good faith:
- New employment
- Better employment
- To be closer to loved ones and seeking a fresh start
- To be with a new spouse who has been transferred for work
Interstate and International Implications of Relocation of a Minor Child
Some relocation cases involve moves over 75 miles within the state of Oklahoma; others involve moves to other states and sometimes other countries. Due to the laws concerning residency and jurisdiction over minor children, a relocation case may have long-term consequences for where future child-related disputes and legal issues are heard. In other words, if a relocation is permitted to another state or country, after enough time passes, the court in that state or country may decide that they are the proper court to hear a request for modification, rather than the court that originally issued the custody decree or the order permitting the relocation. In a famous case involving Hollywood actress Kelly Rutherford, jurisdiction began in Los Angeles, transferred to New York, then finally ended up in the country of Monaco.
Special Things to Consider in Relocation Cases
There are a number of appellate cases in Oklahoma dealing with relocation issues. One reason is that many trial judges disfavor relocation and tend to rule against a proposed relocation even when the parent desiring to move away “checks all the boxes." Another reason is the nature of relocation cases: a move-away has a serious impact on the relationship between each minor child and the nonrelocating parent, so the cases can be difficult to resolve amicably and the parent who loses the case may have incentive to appeal no matter what are the underlying facts. There have been a number of large studies about the short-term and long-term impact of relocation on the minor children involved. In the absence of domestic violence, at least one major study concluded that the thing that impacts children most negatively in relocation cases is not necessarily the relocation; rather, it is the fight and hostility involved in a contested relocation dispute that most affects the children. In every relocation case, from the very beginning, the parents and their attorneys should be thinking ahead about potential appellate and jurisdictional issues. Relocation cases can be difficult to negotiate and compromise, so each parent will benefit by having a trial lawyer who can take the case all the way.