From the Divorce section of How You Can Avoid Legal Land Mines by Joseph S. Lyles (2003).
Custody issues concerning minor children can be extremely tough to handle. Because parents and grandparents usually have strong feelings of love and responsibility for their children or grandchildren, custody battles are always highly emotional. And those feelings of love and responsibility often foster feelings of hate towards anyone trying to take custody away and guilt over any alleged or perceived failings in the proper care of the children.
I’ve had clients who voluntarily relinquished custody of their children to the other parent or to the grandparents due to financial hardship, only to find that the temporary custodians refused to return the children later when my clients were in a better financial position.
I’ve even had a mother almost be denied custody of her children when they were in the hands of an aunt and uncle. The father had legal custody and had turned over de facto or actual custody to the aunt and uncle while he was stationed overseas with the military. The father was killed in a car wreck while serving overseas. When the mother asked for the return of the children, the aunt and uncle refused. Litigation ensued, but it took several months and thousands of dollars for the mother to regain custody of her children.
I also know of a father who accepted physical custody of his children when the mother no longer wanted custody of them. He stopped paying child support but took no court action to change the legal custody. Later, the mother demanded them back and asked the Family Court to hold him in contempt for not paying the child support. He was in a very perilous position and could have gone to jail if he had been found in contempt.
The Lesson: Don’t ever violate a formal custody order issued by a court without immediately retaining an attorney to transfer the custody legally. Likewise, be warned that temporary custody changes can become permanent custody changes.