The Child Custody Act governs child custody dispute and its goal is to minimize unwarranted and disruptive changes of custody orders, except under the most compelling circumstances. A trial court may modify a custody award only if the moving party first establishes proper cause or a change in circumstances. If the parent seeking to change custody fails to establish a proper cause or change of circumstances, a trial court is precluded from holding a hearing to revisit a previous custody determination.
In order to establish a change of circumstances, one must prove that, since the entry of the last custody order, the conditions surrounding custody of the child, which have or could have a significant effect on the child’s well-being, have materially changed.
The existence of an established custodial environment is a question of fact that a trial court is required to address before determining whether changing a previous custody order would be in a child’s best interest. If modifying a custody arrangement alters an established custodial environment, then the party seeking to change custody must demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that such a change in the custodial environment would serve the best interest of the child. But, if modifying a custody order does not change an established custodial environment, the proponent is required to show only by a preponderance of the evidence (and not by clear and convincing evidence) that a change would be in the child’s best interests.
An established custodial environment is deemed to exist when a parent provides the care, discipline, love, guidance, and attention a child requires, thereby creating a permanent and secure environment for the child. The age of the child, the physical environment, and the inclination of the custodian and the child as to permanency of the relationship shall also be considered. The reasons why an established custodial environment exists are not important. Custody orders, by themselves, do not establish a custodial environment. Such an environment depends instead upon a custodial relationship of significant duration in which the child was provided the parental care, discipline, love, guidance and attention appropriate to his age and individual needs; an environment in both the physical and psychological sense in which relationship between the custodian and the child is marked by qualities of security, stability and permanence.