Virginia Child Custody and Physical Address for School Enrollment

Posted on Sep 28, 2022 by Katie Carter


Child custody is complicated, especially because it’s really never absolutely final. Under Virginia law, anything related to the children, including child custody, visitation, and child support, are always modifiable based on a material change in circumstances, up until the time the child turns 18 and is no longer legally considered a child.

School enrollment is, in some cases, one of the bigger hot button issues in child custody. There are a lot of reasons for this, but chief among them is probably the fact that the school academic calendar feels nearly all-consuming for school aged kids, so whoever’s address is used is, potentially, the primary physical custodian.

School enrollment relates to both legal custody – because it involves the right to make decisions with respect to a minor child’s education, religious upbringing and education – and physical custody, because the child necessarily has to live within a certain proximity to the parent whose address is used for school enrollment purposes. So, it’s potentially a hot button issue, and not just in terms of deciding whether to enroll the child in public or private school.

The way I see it, the school enrollment question can take several different forms: (1) where one parent relocates, (2) where the parents live within the same school system, and (3) where the parents live relatively near one another, but not necessarily within the same school system.

School Enrollment and Relocation

Relocation cases are always a challenge to win, so they’re never guaranteed. This article isn’t intended to discuss the merits and/or demerits of relocation, or your probability of succeeding on the merits – for a more in depth discussion as it relates to relocation, check out this article.

A relocation case becomes a win/lose proposition. It’s not really possible to go into a relocation case and say, ‘If you grant my relocation, I’ll go, but if you’re going to rule against me, I’ll stay.” The judge would just order that you stay, and the case would end. Most judges feel that, having access to both parents is most important for the child, so you admitting at the outset that your commitment to moving is lukewarm at best would likely defeat any other argument you could make for it.

Additionally, the court is often really concerned with the status quo. Where has the child been going to school? How is he/she doing there? What sports, extracurriculars, interests, and other family does the child have? To rule that the child move to a new area, with a new school, would require some really good evidence. Remember, too, that you’ll want to focus on the best interests of the child factors, because that’s ultimately what all child custody cases in Virginia are about.

Relocation is tough to win, especially if your child is already attending school. So, depending on whether you’re the relocating parent, or he is, this may be more or less comforting to you to read.

School enrollment when the parents live within the same school system

If both parents live within the same school system, the address used for school enrollment purposes is less important. You could really use either, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with who has primary custody, or even that one or the other of you DOES have primary custody. It’s entirely possible to have shared custody, or even completely 50/50 custody, if you live this close to one another. The address used, whether yours or his, is not so important. Not using yours – which may upset you – does not mean you’ve lost anything, as the school will still have to contact you and allow you to pick up the child, as permitted by your current custody order or agreement.

For school enrollment paperwork, though, it’s important that both parents be included, even if you’re divorced or separated (or never married at all). It’s both passive aggressive and also potentially legally damaging to intentionally leave your child’s father out, or to do anything to thwart his ability to access the child, especially if its in violation of a custody order or agreement.

School enrollment when both parents live nearby but not necessarily within the same school system

For most parents, this is the boat they’re in – they live relatively nearby, but not necessarily close enough to technically be zoned for the same school. So, it becomes a battle of who ‘wins’.

There are a lot of factors at play here. How far, exactly, are we talking? Is it feasible for either or both of you to do school drop off or pick up from your different locations, depending on which school the child attends? If it’s so far that drop off or pick up isn’t possible, then bussing the child to school probably isn’t an option – and that may ultimately impact custody. It’s difficult to share 50/50 custody, for example, if the other parent lives far enough away from the school that the child can’t be bussed and drop off or pick up is prohibitively difficult.

Which is the better school? Are any of the schools a magnet, or offering a program that the child is already involved in or particularly interested in? What about sports programs? Band? The child’s friend group?

There are a lot of factors involved, and ultimately it’ll come down to what’s in the child’s best interests. Its not just about which school is better academically, but that’s certainly a factor, just like it’s a consideration whether custody could reasonably be shared or whether some other alternate arrangement would need to exist.

If you and your child’s father can’t agree, you’ll litigate – and there’s never any guarantee what a judge will decide.

What about modifications to custody and/or school enrollment?

Either way it goes down – whether you ‘win’ or he ‘wins’, custody, visitation, and child custody are always modifiable based on a material change in circumstances. If whatever is ordered – assuming you can’t agree – isn’t working, you’ll be able to petition the court later.

Although a child’s preference isn’t officially something that the court takes into account, it is possible that the court would allow the child – probably through the Guardian ad litem – to have some input here. It would also be possible to bring in teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, and others who can help the court establish an opinion about what’s in a child’s best interests.

Ultimately, using one parent’s address over the other is not a win or a loss; it’s really more about the custodial arrangement. If you live close enough to the same school system, it doesn’t really matter whether its ‘his’ address that’s used, especially if it gets the child into a better school system. (With the real estate market the way it is these days, having the freedom to move slightly outside of the district might enable you to have a better, more affordable quality of life.)

For more information or to request a copy of our custody book, give us a call at 757-425-5200 – we’re here to help!