We all want the best for our children. Usually that is a loving home with a mother and father to love them and guide them. Sometimes, though, that is not possible for a number of reasons. When that reason is a division between the parents, such as divorce, it is then incumbent upon parents to find the best possible solution for their children. In a perfect world, the parents will both be amenable and work together to create a parenting plan that maximizes the children’s time with both parents while also providing them a stable home with everything they need to have an enjoyable life. But again, sometimes agreeable parents aren’t part of the equation, and that is when determining what is best for the children must be determined by a court: the situation we often refer to as a custody battle.
Getting sued and having to go to court is never fun, but it can be particularly nasty when the suit involves custody of children. Every good parent wants to do everything they can to do what they think is best for their children, so when they disagree they often go to any length to make sure their will is imposed on the situation as much as possible. If you take some time and sit in on a few custody cases at your local district court you will see just how nasty things can become: every scratch and bruise becomes a sign of exceptionally poor parenting, an episode of drunkenness 10 years prior shows that a parent is unable to control themselves, and on and on. Such cases end up costing both parties a lot of money and put the parents and children in compromising and embarrassing situations, publicly.
If you want to keep your family from having to experience such a circus act of shame, there are many things you can do to make the process as smooth as possible. The most important is humility and honesty within yourself. Does relinquishing custody to the other parent actually endanger the child or is it simply a personal preference? As the custodial parent, does limiting time with the other parent benefit the child or just make you feel like you’ve won against them? Very often are our custody battles fought primarily on a premise of ill will toward the other parent and not with the interests of the children in mind.
Child Custody Made Simple
One resource I particularly enjoyed when going to court myself was ‘Child Custody Made Simple‘ by Webster Watnik. It is a 600 page work that, surprisingly considering its size, really does break things down in as simple a manner as possible. It addresses the difference between laws of various states and goes through the entire process from ‘I want a divorce’ to the judge signing the final decree and parenting plan. Whether you purchase this book or not, do get help with your case. Almost everyone should at least retain the services of a lawyer to guide them through the bureaucracy of the judicial system, and then they should have some knowledgeable outsiders to guide them how to deal with the lawyer.
The most basic piece of advice is simple, however: do everything you can to remain civil. Not only is a calm and considerate parent exactly what children need, but every time you act out it only makes you look bad to the judge. The judge will spend hours in highly charged cases going over the evidence and past communications between the parents, and they will see which parent is more concerned about the children and which is being stubborn for no reason other than to be difficult or make the other parent look bad. Do be respectful to the other parent, and, again, try very hard to remember the clause that comes at the top of your decree ‘In the interest of [your children]’. This is not about you; it’s about your children.
So what happens when you go to court? From the start your lawyer will have you bring in every documented conversation you had with the other parent, any pictures you have of the children, and will ask for the contact information of witnesses who have seen you with the children. They will ask you to tell them about every skeleton you’ve ever put in a closet: be truthful here, they will protect your confidentiality, but they need to know what they’re dealing with before it is brought up in court. You will also need to make sure that you have everything set up at your house as if the children are already there, even if they’re not. This shows that you have a safe and comfortable place for your children to live. You may also be expected to submit to a court-ordered psychological evaluation and have state social workers examine your house. This entire process is called ‘discovery’ and can easily be the most expensive part of your trial.
Once all of the evidence is collected and the county clerk makes a date for you to appear in court, you will stand before the judge. Make sure you are not late for your court appearance and show up dressed appropriately. ‘appropriate’ means something in the neighborhood of business casual at a minimum, and nothing that shows too much skin or makes you look like an unfit parent. Be polite to the judge and everyone else in the courtroom and try to remain calm and confident. Since the hearing will likely take the better part of a day depending on just how much you and the other parent disagree, it is a good idea to have a good meal before the hearing and use the restroom immediately prior.
After examining all of the evidence and hearing all testimony, the judge will make a decision regarding the disposition of the children and who will be required to maintain which parts of their well-being (i.e. where with the children live, who will provide health insurance, who will pay child support and how much will that be, etc.). There is yet a little bias in most courts toward the mother, but it is becoming more equal every day, so make no assumptions based on gender and do your best to argue your case on the merits of your ability to make the child happy alone.
Once the decree is signed, the case is largely over but many things remain undetermined. Until the children are all grown to a point where they no longer fall under the decree (usually 18 years old, but may extend until the completion of college in some cases), you are still being examined and could be taken back to court again. Continue to document everything and keep those records somewhere safe.
If the custodial parent is missing exchanges, notify them in writing that you intend to have the visitation enforced and document their absence at meetings. The easiest way to document that is to arrive at the time and place indicated in the decree and, when they do not show, go to a nearby store and purchase something, keeping the receipt with the time and date stamped to show you were in the area.
If the non-custodial parent is missing child support payments, make sure to maintain records of that failure and any attempt to force them to pay. Remember, under no circumstances is a failure to pay child support reason to deny visitation. If you do that you might both end up in jail, and then the children will have no parents with whom to live. Follow the guidelines of your state to attempt to have that money returned to you.
There are a few more things which could get you in hot water at any point during or after the court. First, in most states it is illegal to record the voice of another person without explicit authorization: do not, under any circumstances, record phone calls or face-to-face conversations without that authorization. Second, if you are also going through a divorce during the custody battle, do not act like a single person until the marriage is terminated. Infidelity may not be everything in a custody case, but it is one more thing if you already have a list of character defaults to own up to. Third, make no threats of any kind, physical or otherwise. Everything you say will be taken out of context by the opposing lawyer and used against you, do not give them ammunition.
Make no mistake, fighting for custody is going to be challenging. You will be emotionally and financially taxed, you will have more private things shared publicly than you ever wished, and through it all your children will also bear some of the weight of the difficult experience. Please try to do everything you can to make it easier for them, during and after the hearing. Remember, this should all be about making them happy and comfortable, giving them a chance to make life everything we never thought it could be.