Changing Child Custody in Arizona

In Arizona, a parent can ask the court to modify a custody order if there has been a significant change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the child. The parent must give the court a sworn statement containing the facts about the changed circumstances. If the court rules that the facts describe materially changed circumstances, it orders a hearing to determine whether a change of custody would be in the child’s best interests.

In the case of Pridgeon v. Superior Court, 655 P.2d 1 (Ariz. 1982), the Arizona Supreme Court discussed whether a parent seeking a change of custody can rely on facts that occurred before the last custody order. The appellate court also considered whether a parent asking for change of custody is automatically entitled to a hearing on the question of the best interests of the child.

Thomas Allen Pridgeon and Renee Susanne LaMarca divorced on December 15, 1978, and Renee was given custody of their young son. Thomas received visitation rights. In August 1979, Renee started going to school full time and the parents asked the court to give Thomas custody for one year. The court agreed. A year later, the parents asked the court to extend this for another year.

At the end of the second year, Thomas asked the court to give him full custody. He said that the fact that his son lived with him for all that time and the fact that he wanted to stay at Thomas’s house described a substantial change of circumstances. Renee opposed this request, claiming that these facts had already happened before the court’s prior order granting Thomas custody for the second year. She argued that the showing was not enough to meet the “adequate cause” standard. The judge agreed and denied Thomas’s request without a hearing on the son’s best interests.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that a parent can include past facts in his description of the change of circumstances. However, it agreed with the superior court that Thomas had not presented detailed facts supporting his request.


If New Facts Support a Change of Circumstances, Old Facts May Be Considered

The main changed circumstances Thomas cited in his request for change of custody were that the child had lived with him for two years, attending school and making friends in his neighborhood. Renee claimed – as she did in the trial court — that the same circumstances existed when the court extended Thomas’s custody for the second year. Because of that, Renee argued Thomas may not rely on those facts to provide changed circumstances in his request for custody.

Thomas argued that the present circumstances cannot be understood without considering the events of the past. The Arizona Supreme Court agreed. However, it ruled that additional, new facts must also be presented. A parent cannot bring a motion for change of custody based on exactly the same facts considered during a prior custody decision. Some additional change of circumstances must be proved. But once it is, the parent can include past circumstances too. When a motion for change of custody is made based on a new changed circumstance, the court can consider both the new circumstance and prior circumstances to decide if there is adequate cause for a hearing.


Establishing Adequate Cause to Change Custody in Arizona

Thomas claimed that the superior court was obligated to hold a hearing about whether a change of custody was in the child’s best interest. Renee argued that under Arizona law, the court is not obligated to have a hearing unless adequate cause is presented.

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed with Renee. It ruled that, under the law, a parent must first present detailed facts about the changed circumstances that show “adequate cause” for a hearing. If one parent submits detailed facts, the other parent can also file a sworn statement with different relevant facts so that the court has the whole picture. From the facts presented by both parties, the court decides whether there is adequate proof that changed circumstances exist to justify a hearing.

In reviewing Thomas’s sworn statement, however, the Arizona Supreme Court found that he only offered conclusions about what would be in his son’s best interests rather than “detailed facts.” Therefore, it ruled that the superior court correctly declined to hold a hearing on the best interests of the child.