Custody Orders in VA: Types, Modifications, Enforcement

Throughout the custody process, the courts issue orders — mandates that have legal consequences if not followed.

Your legal custody arrangement, parenting time schedule and child support payments are set by court orders. If you and the other parent agree on a parenting plan, you can ask the court to make it an order, too.

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Getting court orders

If you're not married to the other parent, you can get custody and child support orders from Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (J&DR). For a child support order only, open a case with the Division of Child Support Enforcement.

If you're married to the other parent, you can get custody and child support orders from J&DR or ask for them as part of your divorce case in Circuit Court (depending on when you need them).

Parents, often with the help of lawyers and mediators, create proposed orders to submit to the court as a settlement agreement or in a trial.

Throughout your case, courts can also issue other orders — to arrange for investigations and evaluations, refer parents to mediation, protect against family abuse and more. Parents can request these orders in paperwork called motions, and judges may also order them of their own accord. Often, motions require a hearing.

Types of orders

Temporary orders

When you can't agree on custody, parenting time or child support for the duration of your case, either parent can ask for temporary orders. In Circuit Court, these are often called pendente lite orders.

You can request these orders when you open your case or anytime after. If you need them during the one-year separation period before you can file for a no-fault divorce in Circuit Court, open a J&DR case during that period.

Temporary orders may have a specific end date, or they may remain in effect until replaced by final orders.

Emergency orders and ex parte requests

Emergency orders are temporary orders issued rapidly to address urgent situations, such as a parent threatening the children or the other parent. Both courts issue emergency custody orders, but only J&DR issues protective orders for victims of domestic violence.

When you request an emergency order, the courts typically hold a motion hearing within a few days. Ex parte requests, however, follow a different process.

An ex parte request asks the court to immediately issue an emergency order based solely on the evidence in the motion, without a hearing and before involving the other parent. This process is most common for protective orders, but you can also make an ex parte request for emergency custody.

If you receive an ex parte order, you'll have a hearing soon afterward where both parents will get the opportunity to present evidence.

Final orders

Final orders bring your case to a close. They're issued when a judge decides the case in a trial or approves a settlement agreement. They last until your children turn 18 or become legally emancipated, or until the court modifies them (more below).

You'll either receive your final orders in the mail or have them handed to you at the end of your trial or settlement hearing. Keep them safe and accessible in case you need to reference them, modify them or have them enforced.

Modifying orders

Small modifications to your orders — such as shifting visits with the child due to a temporary change in a parent's schedule — don't require court approval, as long as parents are in agreement.

Major or permanent changes, however, require court sign-off — including when parents agree on them.

Courts won't even consider requests for modification unless it's been at least six months since the orders were issued and there's been a significant change in the family's situation.

Common situations warranting modification include:

  • Long-term changes to a parent's work schedule or health, affecting parenting time
  • An increase or decrease in travel time between parents' homes due to a move
  • Substantial changes in the children's needs due to age, health, education, etc.
  • Development of safety risks due to abuse, neglect, substance use or the like

If a family meets the above parameters, either parent can file a Motion to Amend or Review Order. Usually, they file in the court that issued their order. However, many Circuit Courts, including Fairfax and Arlington, require parents to handle modifications in J&DR. (Check your divorce decree.)

Then, at a hearing, both parents can provide evidence of the new circumstances before the judge decides what (if any) modifications to make.

If the parents don't agree on changes, each argues for their proposal. If they do agree on changes, the judge just makes sure the changes are in the children's best interests.

To avoid the modification process, you can anticipate changes in your parenting plan. For example, if you have a toddler, lay out how your schedule will automatically change when the child starts kindergarten.

To help you agree on unforeseen adjustments, include communication provisions in your plan. In particular, it's important to designate a dispute resolution process.

Enforcing orders

J&DR Court enforces custody and child support orders regardless of which court issues them. The Division of Child Support Enforcement can also enforce child support orders.

A parenting plan with provisions for dealing with minor violations and disagreements can help parents resolve these problems without returning to court.

For repeated or serious violations, either parent may file a Motion for Show Cause Summons, which prompts a hearing where both parents can present evidence.

Possible penalties for violations include fines, limits on parental rights, and jail time.

To help enforce your orders, carefully track each parent's time with the children, document expenses and support payments and enter details of any issues into your custody journal.

Complying with orders

Court orders are complicated, and ones for parenting time can be particularly tricky. When exactly does "Week 2" begin this month? Which day is considered the middle of winter break?

Use Custody X Change to transform your order into a calendar you can edit and print, so you'll never have to wonder whether you're staying in compliance.

With the Custody X Change app, you can combine parenting schedules for the school year, school breaks and holidays into one master calendar. Making changes is easy; just click and drag.

Take advantage of our technology so you never lose track of your court-ordered parenting time schedule.

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