How To Prepare For A Child Custody Case
Preparing for a child custody case can be nerve-wracking and takes quite a bit of research, work and preparation. The good news is that anyone can prepare for the case if they know what to do, which can increase their chances of getting the outcome they desire. When it’s time to prepare for a child custody case in California, the key is to work with an attorney who can provide more information specific to the case, how the courts work in your area, and the perspectives of your judge. While this article cannot provide those particular, below are some tips to help parents get ready for their case which will be helpful in most child custody cases.
Be Dependable and Spend Time with the Children
Show up for drop-offs and pickups on time, every time. Use all opportunities to spend time with the children and always spend as much time with them as possible. Sometimes, it’s unavoidable to have to work during the time with the children, but as much as possible, spend the time with them, not going out or doing things without them while they stay with a babysitter. It is better to spend four quality hours with your children, rather than eight hours of them with a babysitter (including gaming, TV, and other screen-based activities).
Be Flexible With Pickup and Drop-Off
Things happen outside of our control. Be prepared for emergencies. Arrange a backup for yourself in case you are held up at work or in a traffic jam. Also, have a backup in case your co-parent is running late or needs to adjust the pickup or drop-off time. If your co-parent needs a slight adjustment to the parenting schedule to accommodate work or other issues, be as flexible as you can. Judges have high regard for parents who show flexibility, especially in an emergency, because it shows that you put the children and their wellbeing ahead of inconvenience on your side. While it is not always possible to be flexible, do so when you are able.
Avoid Putting a Target on Your Back
While it’s not possible to change mistakes you made in the past, such as an arrest or a ticket, it is extremely important to avoid these events when parents start to live in different households. Stay away from anybody and anything that puts you at risk of arrest or even just a ticket. Careless driving or driving a child not properly secure in a seat belt or car seat puts a target on your back. Getting a ticket, getting arrested, or having any other legal issues will give the other parent a chance to say you’re irresponsible and should not have more time with the children.
Keep Notes on Everything
Keep a dedicated journal and write down or print as much information as possible about what is going on before the case goes to court. Phone logs can help show how often one parent called the other. A visitation schedule is crucial for showing the judge how much time each parent has been with the children. Notes on the schedule can show how often visitation was changed on behalf of one parent. Proof of child support payments helps show that each parent contributed to the children’s needs, which is especially important if the payments are voluntary.
Write down as much as possible about everything that happens when there is a dispute with your co-parent or if anything else arises. IDate each entry in the journal and be detailed when writing down everything that happens so it can all be recalled later.
Childproof the Home
No matter how old the child is, at least some level of childproofing is needed. For the youngest children, make sure there are no hazards on their level, that all medication is locked up, and that all cleaning supplies are out of reach or in a locked cabinet. Use child safety kits to better childproof the home. For older children, make sure medications (including marijuana) alcohol are locked up. All firearms and ammunition must be kept in secured, locked gun safes.
Keep the Home Clean
It’s imperative to keep the house clean. This doesn’t mean it needs to be spotless – it’s not always going to be spotless with children. However, make sure the dishes are done, trash is taken out, and that the floors are swept or vacuumed. Clear out as much clutter as possible. There will be toys, laundry may pile up faster than expected, and other little things out around the house, but if it’s clean, you will not have any issues.
Watch Who You’re Around
The buddy from high school may be a lot of fun to hang out with, but if he’s always in and out of legal trouble or abuses substances, he’s probably not the best person to hang around right now. Be careful with who is around the children and, at least temporarily, avoid everyone who isn’t a good influence on them. This includes family members, unfortunately. The goal is clearly show that you are careful with who is around the children and make sure they are surrounded by people who will be a good influence on them.
Only Hire Experienced Babysitters
Run a background check on all babysitters or find a babysitter through a company that does background checks. Check in with babysitters to make sure they’re doing great with the children and follow your instincts if you feel something may be wrong. Hiring a babysitter can’t be avoided sometimes, but when one is needed, make sure they’re the best person to watch the children.
Avoid Corporal Punishment
This is a very common complaint in custody matters. To avoid someone else’s “perception” of whether corporal punishment was “appropriate” in your situation or under a certain circumstance, do not use corporal punishment. Avoid anything that could be construed as abuse, whether that’s corporal punishment, verbal abuse, or emotional abuse. This does not mean children cannot be disciplined…it just means choosing the right methods of discipline. Talking to the children and choosing a method of punishment that fits the issue will be beneficial to the children and look better in court. There are numerous online and written resources for disciplinary methods which are respected by the judicial system, which includes “time-out” for very young children through gaming/social media privilege restrictions for teenagers. You will also learn about how to avoid power struggles with children.
Be Involved in Child’s Life
If your children are involved with sports, drama, or music, attend practices, help them practice and attend performances/games. Talk with them about their interests – what do they like about it? Develop a positive relationship with your child’s teachers, coaches, and other adults involved with your children. Make sure you know as much about your child’s friends and get to know the parents of their friends.
Emotions are high during separations and divorces, particularly when child custody has not been settled. All too often disagreements lead to arguments. At all costs, avoid arguments in front of the children or within their hearing. Fighting in public, and particularly in front of the children may well come up in court. Absent an immediate threat of harm to a child or yourself, it is better to walk away for the moment, even if that means you lose some time with your child. Here again, the court will respect your decision to protect your child from adult issues rather than expose them to an argument. You have the option to calmly and respectfully address the issue after everyone has a chance to be less emotional and more rational. Ask for help with this, if needed, to avoid fighting in front of the children or anywhere in public.
Know What to Expect During the Case
No amount of prior court experience means that going to court again will not be stressful. Whether this is the first time to court or more, there are ways to prepare. Research online for the court’s procedures. Take some time to view other cases before going to court. Most courts will let people watch from the audience and this is a great way to see what the judge is like, how cases work, and more. Of course, consultation and hiring an attorney is the most time-efficient and thorough way to prepare for a court appearance. Here are some basics:
- Create a List of Witnesses. Witness testimony can make a huge difference in a child custody case. Prepare a list of witnesses who can speak at court about your ability to parent the children and what their best interests are. This can include friends and family members, coaches, teachers, and other adults involved in your child’s life. Know what they might say about the situation and your ability to parent, so there aren’t any surprises in court. Do not talk to them, suggest their testimony, or try to convince them to say something specific. Check court procedures for written versus verbal testimony; and, the rules about the length of your hearing.
- Wear Appropriate Clothing to Court. Always dress appropriately to court. Avoid wearing old or stained clothes and make sure the outfit is clean and wrinkle-free. Your clothes should be similar to what you would wear to church or when going to a job interview. Judges rarely expect a coat/tie for men, or for women in dress suits. Instead, dress in a way that shows respect for the courtroom environment.
- Research Rules for Presenting Your Case. Every court has rules about presenting documents, the order of presentation, serving documents to the other side, and filing documents for the judge to review during your hearing. Be sure to contact an attorney or research online to make sure you thoroughly understand what is expected of you before your hearing. Judges are not allowed to excuse you from these rules. Instead, people without attorneys have the same expectations to fulfill these rules as an attorney. If you do not follow these rules, then the judge may cancel or delay your hearing.
- Arrive Early and Prepared. Prior to leaving for the courthouse, make sure you know which courtroom is assigned for your case! On the day of the court hearing, arrive at the courthouse early to make sure there’s time to find parking, go through security, find the courtroom, speak with your lawyer, and do any last-minute preparations for the case. Be prepared and bring anything that might be needed, including the journal kept leading up to the case. Your lawyer may have more information about what to bring to make sure you don’t forget anything crucial.
- Be Honest When Answering Questions. During the court hearing, always be honest. It is okay to honestly answer questions about past struggles or other issues, to discuss what has changed, and how it has changed. Judges expect clients who have had issues in the past to be actively working on improving to be a better parent for their child. If anything is a concern, talk to the attorney before the case to know what you can do to minimize the impact of any prior incidents of concerns.
- Prepare Notes to Remember Points to Report. Keeping a journal, as previously mentioned, makes it easy to prepare for a hearing; although, depending on the length of the hearing, you may have to summarize certain events as opposed to providing every detail in the journal. Since child custody hearings may occur long after an important incident, it is not uncommon to forget details or misremember how things occurred. With the journal in hand, it’s possible to use the notes to remember exact details for cases and to make sure the judge is provided with an accurate and detailed account of what happened. Be sure to talk to an attorney, however, for rules on whether you might have to give the entire journal to the judge and the other side if you use it during a hearing.
- Keep Your Comments Focused On What’s Best for the Child. Remember that the goal in the child custody case is not necessary to get what you prefer. Instead, it is to make sure that the parenting plan works best for your child. In most cases, the best interest of the child is a stable, loving home environment as well as time with both parents. The outcome may not necessarily be what you want, but it might be what’s best for the children. Remember too, there is no such thing in California as a “permanent” child custody arrangement. All child sharing plans change as the children become older, parent work schedules or the children’s activities, school schedule, or interests change. Custody arrangements can be adjusted, even outside of the court, when anything changes if the goal remains to find a solution that works best for the child.
- Show What Has Changed. When in court, tell your story by showing what has changed for your children and why your suggested parenting plan best addresses those changes. Parents who have had legal issues in the past can show they’ve worked hard on turning their life around and being better parents for their children. This is done by showing support groups and personal resources which support you as a parent and your children. To make clear that there will not be similar problems in the future.
- Describe the Co-Parenting Relationship. The judge will be very interested to know about your actions that help (or hurt) the co-parenting relationship you have with the other parent. Do you walk away from tense situations when the children are present? Do you DE-escalate arguments? Do you provide fair solutions to problems? Are you flexible when problems arise? While you should not attack the other person, you certainly should respectfully state any concerns you have if the other parent is not making safe and healthy decisions for the child. It is crucial to avoid simply talking poorly about the other parent, so stick with facts that can be proven. Stick with what you’ve personally witnessed; however, also be sure to talk to an attorney about ways to address information that comes from other people (hearsay).
Speak with Attorney
Well before the court hearing, spend time speaking with the attorney on what to expect and what will be needed during the court case. Ask for tips on how to act, what to say, what questions you might be asked, and more because the above guidelines are not the be-all and end-all to success in court. You also will worry less about what you do not know! An experienced attorney will have presented child custody cases with the same judge before, so they can give you tips to give you a better chance of getting the desired outcome.
While the idea of going to court for a child custody case can be intimidating, being prepared, and knowing what to expect can go a long way toward helping you get a better outcome and reach your goals. Always reach out to your attorney with any questions, whether those are big questions like asking how much parenting time you’re likely to get or small questions like what to wear to the hearing. The attorney is a part of your resource team – available to help you get a better outcome and for the process to be less stressful than attempting it on your own.