Who Pays for Travel Expenses When a Parent Moves With a Child?

The court has allowed your ex-wife to move to New Jersey with your three-year-old son. You still live in North Carolina. The court has awarded you visits every other weekend, on half of the major holidays, and over the entire summer. But visiting with your son just became much more difficult, especially because he is so young. You are beyond frustrated with the increase in travel time and the substantial cost involved with seeing your son. This leads to one question:

Can you receive child support to cover travel expenses?

Do you have to bear all those costs yourself? Can you make the party who wanted to move away pay for your visits or at least share the costs? If you have a child support order, you can ask the court to factor travel expenses for visitation into that order.

What Are Travel Expenses?

Travel expenses may include airfare, train or bus fare, gas, hotels, and sometimes meals. The list of travel expenses can be extensive, depending on the facts of your case.

The key is showing the court how your expenses directly relate to the travel necessary to see your child.

Typically, a meal on a weekend with your child would not be considered a travel expense. This would be an ordinary expense for a parent.

However, it may be that you would usually eat at home, but the type of travel required to see your child results in you eating out significantly more. In that case, you should present the expense to the court for consideration as an additional travel expense associated with your child custody and visitation schedule.

Travel Expenses That Could Be Associated With the Above Custody Schedule

Plane tickets are already expensive, but scheduling a flight for a minor adds even more fees and costs. The first issue you face is that your child is under five years old. Most airlines will not allow a child that age to fly alone. Even then, the child may only be allowed to take direct flights unaccompanied until he is significantly older.

Typically, airlines charge extra fees, ranging from $50 to $150 or more, both ways, for a child to fly alone.

So, if you need to use air travel to see your child, you would have to fly with the child. In other words, if you wanted to have the visitation in your own home, you would have to fly to New Jersey, retrieve your child, and fly back to North Carolina. That seems crazy, right?

The other option is flying up to New Jersey, paying for a hotel, and visiting there, eating out the whole time. Either way, these options are less than ideal. The costs add up fast. What used to be a $50 weekend with your son now is easily a $1,000 weekend.

Of course, you love your son, and you want to spend as much time as you can with him. But let’s be real. Your income cannot support an extra $1,000 to $2,000 a month in visitation expenses associated with travel.

Maybe the train would be cheaper?

Trains go up and down the East Coast daily, but the trip from North Carolina to New Jersey is easily eight hours. You may have to take time off from work to have your son for the weekend, which would cut into your income. The time you spend on the train could also reduce your time with your son.

As with flying, your son has to be at least 12 to ride the train alone. That won’t be an option for years to come.

The visitation would have to take place in New Jersey. Otherwise, you would spend your entire weekend with your son riding the train down to North Carolina and then back to New Jersey. Visits in New Jersey demand that you get a hotel for the weekend.

Driving is always an option if all else fails, right?

You could always drive to visit your son, but that’s hardly better. It would cost at least a few hundred dollars in gas, round trip, not to mention the wear and tear on your vehicle. Driving could take as long as 10 hours one way, so again you would have to get a hotel for the weekend. How could you even make this drive for just a weekend visit?

Whether you go by plane, train, or automobile, your visitation costs have now doubled or even tripled, thanks to the court’s ruling. What in the world can you do? Is there any relief from the extra costs?

Ask the Court to Give You Credit for Travel Expenses

The Travel expenses related to visitation, such as the costs discussed above, are addressed in the context of child support. These expenses are not automatically awarded simply because a parent is allowed to move a child out of state, thereby increasing the other parent’s travel expenses for visitation.

North Carolina Child Support Guidelines consider travel costs extraordinary expenses. You have to file a motion to modify child support to address your travel-related expenses. You can file that request either in your response to the motion to modify custody or later in a separate motion.

Extraordinary expenses are a line item on the child support worksheet. The court will insert the sum it deems appropriate for travel expenses to factor into the child support calculation.

In some scenarios, a motion to deviate from the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines might be appropriate. If the expenses are too great and the resulting credit on the child support worksheet doesn’t create a fair distribution of expenses, or if other factors in the case warrant an exception, you could file a motion for a deviation.

What Do I Present to the Court as Evidence of My Travel Expenses?

The type of evidence that you present will depend on the mode of transportation you choose for visitation.

If you decide that flying is truly the most effective option, then the court needs to see all the expenses associated with flying. If you have previous receipts and records of prior flights, you can share them with the court. Bring the court reasonable estimates of the costs that you expect to incur if the visitation schedule is just beginning and you have no history of expenses.

Expenses for flying would include, at a minimum, the flight cost, fees for checking a bag, parking at the airport, ground transportation, and so on. Each case will be different, so it is critical to think through every expense you might incur. Your attorney can assist you with obtaining the best documentation to establish these expenses.

Another factor to consider is the child’s age. If your child is older, you may have different expenses. For instance, a 10-year-old on a flight by himself may want to use his iPad to watch movies. A reasonable extra expense might be buying internet service for him to use during the flight.

You can testify to the court about the expenses you expect to incur for visitation. The court needs to hear from you to understand your side of this, so be prepared with detailed information.

For example, testifying that it will “probably” be expensive to fly your child from New Jersey to North Carolina will not assist the court. It is far better to say, “Flying my son from New Jersey to North Carolina to visit with me will cost around $400 in flights for both of us. It will also cost $15 in parking and $50 in gas since the airport is 40 miles from my home.”

The reality is that some of your expenses will be estimates for the court to consider unless you already have actual receipts detailing expenses. Therefore, your informed testimony about the expenses is essential for the court to hear.

Don’t Forget to Consider Hidden or Unexpected Expenses

Just when you think you have all of your bases covered, you discover yet another cost associated with visits.

Don’t miss out on telling the court about all of your costs. Take the time to think through every expense that might pop up.

Consider the following:

  • the cost of gas to drive to and from the airport, if it is more than a few miles from your home, or the cost of a cab or other ground transportation;
  • parking fees at the airport;
  • fees for checked bags at the airport;
  • increased car maintenance costs if you are driving significantly more due to the move;
  • hotel or lodging expenses for your visits, including tips and fees;
  • a significant increase in the cost of meals due to traveling; and
  • any impact on your income due to the increased travel.

Does the Court Have to Give Parents Credit for Their Travel Expenses?

No. Under the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines, expenses incurred to transport children between the parents’ homes are extraordinary expenses that the court may consider in calculating child support.

If a party claims to have incurred or expects to incur travel expenses associated with visitation, the trial court is not required to give that parent any credit.

The trial court has the discretion to decide whether, how, and to what extent it should credit travel expenses. Each case will be unique, decided on its own specific set of facts and circumstances.

The most important point to remember is that you must come prepared, ready to discuss in detail the expenses you have incurred or expect to incur. Provide as much documentation as possible to support your figures.

Real-Life Examples of the Court Giving Credit for Travel Expenses

There are two scenarios to examine:

  1. a parent has a history of travel expenses, or
  2. a parent will now be incurring new travel expenses because the court modified the custody order.

Sometimes, you’ll have a history of actual travel expenses you incurred before the matter is heard in court. This certainly makes it easier to show how much you have spent or will spend going forward. Where you have actual receipts and current proof of expenses, the court does not have to engage in guesswork to calculate any credit.

However, most times you will not have a history of expenses, so you will have to testify about your expected expenses.

Example 1: Child Support Adjusted for Travel Expenses

Eli and Erica have two children. Erica has primary custody, and Eli has visitation rights. Erica moved to Georgia, while Eli stayed in North Carolina. The parties agreed to the move but have not yet requested a modification of the custody order.

Each party has now filed motions to modify child support and child custody to reflect the new custody arrangement. Eli alleges that he has already spent significant sums on travel for visitation.

Eli testified and presented evidence at the hearing to support his costs. He demonstrated that he spent, on average, $300 to $500 monthly in visitation-related expenses and another $125 per month for the children’s airfare.

The trial court’s custody order contemplates visitation between Eli and his minor children in both North Carolina and Georgia. The court gave Eli credit for $300 per month in travel expenses for visitation.

Example 2: No Child Support Adjustment for Travel Expenses

Betty and Bill have joint physical custody of their children according to a consent custody order. Betty moved to California without seeking a modification of custody.

The children remained with Bill in North Carolina.

Over the course of two years, the children have visited Betty twice. Betty paid for those visitation expenses.

Both parents have now filed motions to modify custody.

At the hearing, Betty testified that she would spend, on average, $250 a month to have the children visit her in California. That monthly estimate was based on the total costs of the children visiting her three times each year.

The court modified the custody order to award Betty eight weeks of continuous visitation during the summer. Betty would not be required to pay child support during this eight-week period.

However, the court refused to adjust Betty’s overall child support based on her estimated $250 monthly visitation expenses. In this case, the court seemed to be swayed by the fact that Betty had only paid for the children to visit her twice over the previous two years. The court also factored in the eight weeks of summer visitation when she would not pay child support.

Here, the history of travel expenses seemed to factor into the court’s decision. The outcome may well have been different if Betty had paid for the children to visit her more than twice in a two-year period.

Expenses May Change Over Time

As children grow up, expenses associated with visitation may change. You may find, as the court above did with Betty, that it is more economical to have longer, less frequent visits with your children.

It’s also possible that down the line, you may have to go to court again to revisit travel expenses and the visitation schedule.

What’s the Bottom Line?

As with most child custody and support matters, the facts and circumstances of each case are unique, and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

It is critical that you prepare ahead of time. You must be ready to show the court what you have spent or will spend on travel expenses if a custody modification increases your travel expenses.

Discuss the matter thoroughly with your attorney so he or she can guide you on the type of evidence needed in your particular case.

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