Child custody battles can be one of the hardest, most important fights you’ll have in your life. If you’ve exhausted all opportunities to negotiate an amicable custody agreement with your spouse and you are headed to court, it is time to prepare yourself.
Going to court can be an intimidating, stressful, and scary proposition but if you know what to expect, it can relieve much of the strain, leaving you with energy to focus on your case.
In a contested child custody case in California, you can expect any or all of the following:
- Witnesses: Child custody evaluators, psychologists, doctors, your husband, other witnesses, and the judge may examine your personal life and parenting skills.
- Children’s Lawyer. The court may appoint a lawyer or guardian ad item whose job is to represent the best interests of your child or children.
- A Family court evaluator or mediator will evaluate your case and if yours is a “referring county”, will provide a report with child custody and visitation recommendations to help the judge his or her decision.
- The unexpected. Many judges have their own views on how and by whom children should be raised in the event of divorce. Over the years I have known judges who believe that young children should be raised predominantly by their mothers and adjudicate accordingly. I also have seen judges enter joint physical custody orders giving mothers and fathers equal time with their babies. Psychologists and other experts also have differing opinions about whether children of different ages should remain together while in the custody of either parent.
- Denied requests. It is quite common for child custody requests to be denied especially in move-away cases where one parent wants to move out of the county, state or country with the child or children. Unless there is a very good reason for moving and/or the child is old enough to express his or her opinion and wants to move, the Judge will reject a request unless it is otherwise in the best interests of the child or children.
- Legally Binding Stipulations. When parents meet with child custody mediators employed or contracted by the Court, they often sign agreements called “Stipulations”. These Stipulations set forth the parents agreements made during the custody mediation. What most parents don’t know is that these Stipulations become orders of the Court and difficult, if not impossible to change without both spouse’s consenus or a Judge’s order. I always advise my clients to proceed with caution and not sign any Stipulations that they do not agree with.
- Joint legal and physical custody orders. In my experience, California Judge’s will often order joint legal and physical custody unless there are extraordinary circumstances that put a child at risk. Even in cases with histories of addiction or wacky religious beliefs, Judges don’t usually deny custody unless there is present and immediate threat of harm to the child. For this reason I am convinced that Katie Holmes filed her divorce in New York where I understand courts will and do award sole physical custody to one spouse. I also am convinced that if Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise had divorced in California, Tom could have and would likely have been granted 50-50 physical custody despite his devotion to the Church of Scientology. There is an interesting discussion about Child Custody with Religious Cults on the International Cultic Studies Association that discusses California’s religious protections applied in custody disputes.
In preparing for your child custody case there are several things you can do. Look at the list below and use any tips that may be relevant to your case. Many of these suggestions may seem time consuming and unnecessary but in the matter of contested child custody cases, the last thing you want to do is go into the battle unprepared.
Taking the time to prepare for a child custody dispute now can save you pain, headaches, and money down the road. If you want to win custody of your children it’s vital that you dedicate yourself to this cause until it is settled or resolved.
In a contested custody case, you can do any of these things to prepare:
- Evaluate your parenting. Take a look at your parenting skills from the eyes of your soon-to-be-ex. What has he criticized in the past? Do you have some bad habits in parenting? How could you be a better parent? Don’t beat yourself up; no parent is perfect, just take an honest look at your own parenting skills. You can be sure your spouse and his/her lawyer will bring up anything negative that you’ve done in the past. Be prepared to defend your actions, explain how you’ve changed (if applicable), and point out your positive parenting skills. Also keep in mind that most Judges, at least in California, aren’t interested in parenting issues unless they are truly detrimental to a child.
- Take inventory of your behavior. You may be a great parent and not feel like each and every action you’ve taken, especially outside of parenting, should be judged; but it may be in a custody dispute. Spending the time to look at anything you’ve done that may be inappropriate or subject to negative judgment is essential. Going into court knowing what to expect and having a plan to appropriately deal with each point is vital to success in your case.It’s also essential that any less than desirable behavior or activity that you are continuing to engage in stop immediately. Contested child custody cases can be brutal, with the other party bringing out anything and everything in an attempt to sully your reputation and win the battle. Don’t give your spouse any ammunition.
- Get Honest. When you take a parenting and behavior inventory, be honest. We’ve all made mistakes and wish we could change a choice or two. Pretending it didn’t happen will only lead to challenges in getting what you want and what you think is best for your children should it arise in court.Once you’re clear on what your ex may use against you, be completely honest about all of this with your lawyer. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed about any of it to the point of keeping it secret. Chances are it will come out if you’re in a heated custody battle; your lawyer must know what to expect ahead of time in order to defend your actions and to win your custody case. This information is normally strictly confidential and your lawyer should only use it to help you win your case.
- Gather Evidence. Bring together concrete evidence in the form of people, experts, documents, police reports, school records, phone records, doctors’ records, child protective service records, bank records, anything that will support allegations you make against your spouse or defend any allegations made against you.Keep this evidence organized and concise. Have a list of people who will testify for you with contact information on hand.
- Professionals. If you don’t already have a lawyer you should get one who specializes in child custody disputes in your County and has extensive experience. If you already have a lawyer who doesn’t specialize in contested child custody, seriously consider hiring one who can serve as co-counsel. Consider hiring child specialists and experts to review your case and if necessary, testify at trial. Ask your lawyer to recommend good child custody experts.
- Children front and center. Contested custody battles can get heated. Keep your focus on your children and what’s best for them. Don’t become entangled in revenge and anger. If you and your spouse focus on what’s in the best interest of your children, much of the accusations, anger, and excess stress might disappear if your issues are not actually detrimental to your child or children. Unless a custody dispute is essential to the well being of your child or unavoidable because your spouse is driving it, seriously consider avoiding a battle.
- Stay calm, keep focused. A contested custody battle can bring about many emotions; anger, resentment, frustrations, hurt, disappointment, regret, and more. Keeping a calm heart and mind; staying focused on the facts – as well as being honest about what’s in the best interest of your children is vital to your success in court. Showing the judge a calm, in control, mature parent despite the stress of the situation is key. Lose your cool and you risk losing your case.
Contested child custody cases are never easy. Going into the battle prepared, honest, and focused can make the difference between losing and winning. Be your best. Do your best. And always keep the best interests of your child or children at heart.
This article is not legal advice. You should consult an attorney if you have legal questions that relate to your specific divorce. I have no relationship with the organization; agency or program listed above and do not endorse their work. I provide the link for your information only.