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Pandemic Relocations Have Wreaked Havoc on Child-Custody Arrangements

For exes who share kids, it can create chaos when one parent decides to decamp back to their hometown for good.

When the pandemic moved in, the people moved out: swapping cramped apartments for country homes, or expensive city digs for places they could get on the cheap (or for free, like Mom and Dad’s house). Tempting escapes all, but not without their complications—especially for divorced parents sharing custody.

Now, more than two years later, moves that might have at first seemed temporary have in many cases started to feel permanent. And for the ex-spouses left behind, formerly clear-cut custody arrangements have started to feel like casualties of Covid.

The result, say Washington divorce attorneys, has been a spike in relocation cases: disputes in which one parent wants to leave the area where both exes previously agreed to remain and share access to the children. Such matters are especially tough to win, because judges aren’t often inclined to uproot settled kids. Still, some lawyers say their roster of clients wanting to engage in these fights has ballooned since the pandemic got underway.

Even before Covid, attorneys here dealt with an unusually high number of relocations, given the region’s preponderance of military families and Foreign Service types. But the latest wave of cases, lawyers say, is a far cry from the typical ex wanting to bring the kids for a yearlong work assignment in Paris. Instead, clients are considering moves from a wholly new perspective: Is there another place to call home where they could feel more supported and fulfilled? If so, why not move there for good?

“The pandemic absolutely prompted people to reexamine every aspect of their lives,” says Matthew Edwards, a partner at the DC divorce firm Ain & Bank. “I’ve seen situations where people question their entire existence.”


The number-one thing on many parents’ minds: just how far they are from extended family. While before Covid it may have simply been inconvenient to live across the country from the grandparents—i.e., free childcare—the pandemic made that arrangement feel untenable for many families.

“More than ever, people need a support system,” says Melissa Schefkind, a partner at the Bethesda law firm New & Lowinger. “I definitely see a trend [of] parents wanting to raise their own children near their parents.”

Another common scenario: one ex-spouse, now untethered from working in an office, deciding to relocate to a city with a lower cost of living, or someplace closer to nature. Attorneys say plenty of these requests have started innocently enough, with the ex genuinely believing the move would be only temporary. But then weeks turned into months, and months into years.

Rachel Rubinstein, a lawyer at Geller Law Group, describes one local case in which the mother decamped with the children to a family home a few hours away in Virginia early in the pandemic, then fought—unsuccessfully—to stay. The mom argued against her ex-husband in court that her move constituted “a material change in circumstances,” the legal term for a situation in which one’s life has changed so significantly that altering a custody agreement is warranted. The court ruled for the dad. Explains the lawyer: “She doesn’t get to ask to modify custody just because he temporarily agreed.”


Photograph courtesy of convertkit/unsplash.com.

The standard for custody proceedings of any kind is what a judge considers to be in “the child’s best interest.” Barring abuse, violence, or some other endangering behavior, it’s a high bar for anyone to assert convincingly that a child should be taken away from a willing co-parent.

The argument gets harder still in places with a high quality of life—like Washington. “I think the judges in this area, rightfully so, think: There’s everything here,” says David Ginsberg, a name partner at Fairfax’s Cooper Ginsberg Gray. “There’s no medical need that can’t be met, no educational need that can’t be met.” In other words, what could a parent possibly provide elsewhere that would beat what DC has to offer?

It doesn’t help that many workplaces are still figuring out their return-to-office policies, leaving lawyers and judges to grapple with a lot of uncertainty. “Are we changing the custody arrangement for something that’s only going to last three to four months? Or is this the new way of life?” says Ginsberg. “We don’t want to be redoing custody arrangements every six months. That’s not healthy for anybody.”

Which is to say that people who are nonetheless determined to have this fight need to be well prepared. To make the case that a move would really be better for the children, the ex who wants to relocate has to have “all [their] ducks in a row,” says Ain & Bank partner Sarah Mancinelli. That includes knowing everything about the destination’s school district and being able to explain in detail how the parent who’s leaving will ensure that the other parent can maintain a relationship with the kids. “Will you be willing to let [your ex] stay in your house?” says Mancinelli. “Will you be willing to pay for an Airbnb when they visit?”

The technologies that typically make long-distance relationships easier can actually become complicating factors. “There are arguments over Zoom visits,” says New & Lowinger’s Schefkind. “Will FaceTiming a parent in to a soccer game ever be the same as having them in person, cheering in the stands?”

Schefkind has also experienced, amid her “tremendous spike” in Covid relocation cases, an uptick in battles over airline travel. “The arguments can be something like whether children will fly commercial or private during a variant surge,” she says, “down to the brand of sanitizing wipes to be used to clean luggage upon arrival after a cross-country flight.”

But even parents who can answer all those sorts of questions are often unable to pass the biggest test. “I always advise my clients that underlying every single relocation case is a trick question, which is: If the court does not award you primary custody of your children and says, ‘These children have to stay in the DMV,’ are you still going to relocate?” says Ain & Bank’s Edwards. Sometimes—military parents being the most obvious example—the answer is yes. But usually it’s no. “And when the court perceives that it can keep parents proximate to one another by denying the move, that’s what they’ll do.”


Though attorneys say it doesn’t happen often, there is another, more drastic choice some parents make: simply to move with their kids but without the consent—or sometimes even the knowledge—of their ex. During the pandemic’s early months, when courts were shut down, doing so would have been easier than usual. Even now, dockets remain so backlogged that it can take several months to get a court date, unless the aggrieved ex can prove that their case is a true emergency.

Another particularly difficult situation arises when parents who aren’t officially separated find themselves on opposing sides of a relocation. Cheryl New, name partner at New & Lowinger, says that in her practice, these matters have mostly involved mothers of small kids moving closer to the maternal grandparents. Their marriages were rocky before the pandemic, New explains, and the added stress of Covid prompted them to finally pull up stakes. Then one day, the dad decides he wants his kids to come home but there’s no formal custody arrangement to enforce because a legal separation was never finalized.

“It’s not kidnapping,” on the part of the mom, says New, but the burned partner in that situation will say, “ ‘I was hoodwinked.’ ” (And frequently he’ll use the mom’s decision to take off as a way to bolster his own credibility when the official divorce proceedings begin.)


Though it’s still mostly assumed that parents bringing relocation cases are likely to fail, lawyers sense that courts are beginning to view some of these requests differently.

Given the extended periods that many of us have been forced to stay apart from loved ones during Covid, some attorneys predict that judges will give more consideration to ex-spouses who want to be closer to family.

Natalia Wilson, managing partner of Ain & Bank, had a case during the pandemic in which the mom, who lived in DC, wanted to move a three-hour drive away. Though other factors were involved, Wilson says the client’s request was prompted by her desire to be closer to a relative, and the court sided with her.

In the past, Wilson thinks, the judge wouldn’t have been as receptive. “Covid altered everything in the family-law world,” she says. “Possibilities that were not even in most folks’ minds before the pandemic [now] are.”

This article appears in the August 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica M. Goldstein

Jessica M. Goldstein is a contributing editor at Washingtonian. She has written for the Washington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Vulture, and others.