Abby Westell is an expert in the field of the legal rights of parents. She has been recognised by Legal 500  for being a “pragmatic child relocation specialist”. Here, Louise explains some of the key legal points separated parents should be aware of before relocating with their child.
What is relocation?
Relocation is when one parent, who is divorced or separated from the other parent, wishes to move to a new area with their child, whether to another part of the UK or abroad.
What are the most common reasons for parents wishing to relocate with their child?
- Relocation for job after separation: one parent is offered a new job or opportunity in a different part of the UK or abroad, but the other parent cannot or will not move
- Relocation for family: one parent wishes to return to their native country, or to join family members who already live abroad, because they feel isolated and/or unhappy after separating from their ex-partner
- Relocation with new partner: one parent has formed a new relationship with someone, who may be from another country, and wants to move abroad with them
- Relocation for a better life: one parent feels that they can improve the lifestyle they and their child currently enjoy if they were to move to a different part of the UK or abroad.
When do relocation disputes tend to happen?
Relocation disputes tend to arise when a couple with a child separate. There are often very painful issues resulting from a separation, which further distance can exacerbate. Often, one parent wishes to move abroad or to another part of the UK with their child, while the other parent wishes to remain living with their child in the local area. A wish to return to a native country or to join other family members already living abroad usually tends to arise fairly soon after a separation, whereas other reasons can arise at any time. Sometimes even years later.
How far away can I move with my child?
There is no set distance within which you may relocate without the consent of your child’s other parent in the eyes of the law. Every family’s situation is very different.
What are my legal rights if I want to relocate internationally with my child?
If there is no child arrangements order in place concerning your child, it is recommended that you obtain written consent from every person with parental responsibility for your child. The written consent of your child’s other parent should be obtained regardless of whether or not they have parental responsibility, save for in exceptional circumstances.
If there is a child arrangements order in place concerning your child, stipulating that they live with you, you must not remove your child from the UK for more than one month without the written consent from every person with parental responsibility, or permission of the court.
If there is a child arrangements order in place concerning your child, stipulating that they spend time with you, you must obtain written consent from every person with parental responsibility for your child. The written consent of your child’s other parent should be obtained regardless of whether or not they have parental responsibility, save for in exceptional circumstances.
Failure to comply with the law and obtain appropriate permissions could result in you being accused of child abduction, so it is essential that you seek professional legal advice before making firm plans.
What if my ex-partner agrees to my relocation internationally with my child?
You ought to obtain a child arrangements order by consent. This should record your ex-partner’s agreement and set out what the arrangements for your child to spend time with your ex-partner will be once you have moved.
If you don’t obtain a child arrangements order by consent, your ex-partner may change their mind and withdraw their consent at the last minute. This could disrupt any plans you have made to move and, of course, would likely be very stressful for all concerned. Not least your child.
What if my ex-partner won’t agree to me relocating internationally with my child?
It will usually be necessary to seek permission of the court.
What will the court consider if I want to relocate internationally with my child, but my ex-partner doesn’t agree?
Broadly speaking, you must be able to show that you have a carefully considered plan before you apply to the court. It is essential that you demonstrate that your child will be able to maintain a meaningful relationship with their other parent, including spending time with them as often as possible. You should put together a plan which presents your case in the best possible light.
When determining whether your child should be allowed to move abroad, the deciding factor is usually whether relocating would be in your child’s best interests. Your child’s welfare is the paramount consideration of the court. However, the court will also consider the respective situations of you and your ex-partner and, in particular, the reason behind your desire to move abroad. Are you genuinely trying to improve the lifestyle your child currently enjoys, or are you attempting to disrupt and frustrate your child’s relationship with your ex-partner?
Remember, it is generally considered to be in the best interests of a child to enjoy a fully functioning relationship with both of their parents. This is more difficult to achieve if the child lives in a different country from one of their parents, but it’s not impossible. Moving abroad would not necessarily prevent your child from regularly spending time with your ex-partner, or extended family members who continue to live locally. Regular long-haul air travel is no longer only available to the rich and famous, which makes it much easier for your child to enjoy consistent, face-to-face contact with your ex-partner than it used to be. Although your child can use Skype, FaceTime and/or e-mail to stay in touch regularly with their other parent, the court does not usually consider this to be an adequate substitute for regular face-to-face visits.
Other considerations the court must reflect on are:
- The ascertainable wishes and feelings of your child (considered in light of their age and understanding)
- Your child’s physical, emotional and educational needs
- The likely effect on your child of any change in their circumstances
- Your child’s age, sex, background and any characteristics which the court considers relevant
- Any harm your child has suffered or is at risk of suffering
- How capable you and your child’s other parent (and any other relevant person) are of meeting your child’s needs
- The range of powers available to the court.
How old does my child need to be before their wishes are taken into consideration by the court?
Any decision the court makes will never entirely be down to what your child would prefer, regardless of their age and level of understanding. Your child’s wishes will be just one of a number of factors that the court takes into consideration when deciding what is best for them. The court will only start to place any significant weight on your child’s wishes and feelings when they are considered competent enough to fully understand the situation and the consequences of any decision. There is no set age for this, as all children mature at different rates.
Does the distance I propose to relocate my child make a difference?
Geographical distance between parents is only one of the factors the court will consider, but there will usually be additional challenges to overcome the further away you wish to move.
Your child may not be able to see their other parent as often, so it is harder to prevent a deterioration in their relationship. Their other parent may not be able to be as actively involved in the day-to-day arrangements for your child as they are at present. Your child may feel upset that their other parent can’t regularly attend school events as their friends’ parents do. If you are more financially secure and funding travel costs for their other parent, this may lead to them feeling financially reliant on you and cause additional friction in your relationship. This could make it more difficult for you to co-parent your child together.
There are some additional legal issues which will arise if you are planning to move abroad. For example, would the arrangements for your child to spend time with their other parent be enforceable under their laws? Often it will depend on whether the other country is an EU country or a signatory of the 1996 Hague Convention. Even relocating from England to Scotland will require a child arrangements order to be registered in the new jurisdiction to enable it to be enforced!
You have probably thought of the obvious expenses of moving home, such as:
- Housing expenses:
- Mortgage costs
- Stamp duty
- Valuations and surveys
- Legal fees
- Buildings and contents insurance
- Costs on the day:
- Removal company
- Temporary storage for personal belongings
- Redirection of your postal mail
Remember also, there will be the legal expenses of securing an order from the court, whether you are applying for an order by consent or if there are contested proceedings. It is difficult to say exactly how much it might cost to secure permission to relocate with your child through the court, because every case is so very different. We offer a free 30 minute consultation or a 90 minute meeting at a reduced rate of £150 + VAT, during which we can take details of your specific circumstances and provide you with an estimate of your overall likely costs.
The costs of obtaining a court order without consent can be quite considerable and the court’s decision will rely entirely on the evidence you lodge at court, so it is essential that you are well-prepared and efficiently represented. This will ensure that your case is presented in the best possible light and you have the greatest chance of success. If your plans are well thought through, meet the needs of your child and include arrangements for them to spend time with their other parent, the other parent may consent much more readily than you might think; however, it is essential to be prepared and get specialist legal advice.
How long will it take?
There is no formal notice period that needs to be given to relocate with your child, but it will take time for your application to make its way through the court. This should be borne in mind when you are making arrangements to move.
If you are applying for an order by consent, it will normally take a few weeks to obtain. However; if your child’s other parent is contesting your move, the process of applying to relocate through the court will usually take about 6 to 9 months. If the court is particularly busy, it could take even longer. There are very limited and exceptional circumstances where, in the case of an emergency, it may be possible to complete the process more quickly.
Are relocation cases and disputes common?
Relocation cases are becoming more and more common, as we are living in a modern world which encourages international movement and immigration. This means there are an increasing number of relationships between people of different nationalities and, as a result, more disagreements as to where a child should be brought up.
What should my next step be?
If you are thinking of moving to a different area or country with your child, or your ex-partner is threatening to move away and you don’t want your child to move, you should take legal advice from a specialist who can consider your specific circumstances in detail.