How to prepare for a child custody battle

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A child custody battle is one of the most difficult fights of a parent’s life.

Parents vying for more time or control sling accusations and air dirty laundry. Some go too far, intentionally putting their kids in the middle

There are no winners in child custody battles.

If there’s a remote chance of resolving your issues without going to court, and your kids aren’t in harm’s way, in my opinion, it’s a chance worth taking.

If there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell… here are some things you should know about child custody battles in California.

1. Initial (temporary) child custody hearings usually last 20 minutes or less. The courts allocate twenty minutes for initial child custody hearings. Each parent may be given a total of ten minutes to make a case before the judge makes a decision. Sometimes judges will extend the length of the initial hearing.

2. Longer hearings and trials ordinarily must be requested. If a case requires more than twenty minutes and a judge can’t or won’t be accommodating, parties may request long cause hearings and/or trial dates.

3. It’s rare for witnesses to testify at temporary/initial child custody hearings. Witnesses called to testify may include parents, family, teachers, doctors, evaluators, psychologists and anyone else with relevant knowledge.

4. Lawyers may be appointed/hired to represent the children. If appointed or hired the lawyers’ roles are to protect the best interests of, and advocate for the children. Parents should not be able to sway children’s attorneys.

5. Family court mediation can change your lives. If yours is a “referring county” and you don’t settle your issues outside of court, you must participate in child custody mediation. After mediation your mediator will make child custody and visitation recommendations to your judge. Judges usually adopt mediators’ recommendations. If yours isn’t a referring county, the mediator’s primary role is to mediate your dispute and he/she will not make recommendations to your judge.

6. Agreements reached and signed by both parties in court mediation ordinarily become legally enforceable court orders. The agreements usually are written on a court form labeled Stipulation and Order. Unless both parties subsequently agree, getting out of these agreements can be difficult, if not impossible. Caution is advised when signing agreements. It is wise to speak with an attorney first.

7. Being a mother doesn’t mean it’ll be a slam dunk. In a number of counties including Marin, San Francisco and Napa, joint legal and physical custody with 50-50 timeshare is common. Even if mom is the primary caretaker and Dad works full time, when joint physical custody is requested it’s often granted.

8. Addictions, proclivities and other bad behavior may carry little or no weight.  Addiction, strange pleasures, affairs, criminal records and other oddities are common. Unless they are extreme, occurring in the presence of the children or placing the children in harm’s way, they don’t seem to sway judges’ opinions. Arguably, good enough has become the standard.

If you’re on your way to court, preparation is essential. Here are some of the things you may consider doing.

A. Hire a good local attorney who specializes in child custody disputes. They know the lay of the land and the players. They can guide you through a difficult situation, which can make the process easier. If you already have an attorney but he/she doesn’t specialize in taking contested child custody cases to your court, hiring a specialist as co-counsel is a good option.

B. Evaluate your parenting. Take a look at your parenting with the eye of your spouse/ex. Do you have bad parenting habits? Can you be a better parent? Is the criticism warranted? If it is, strive to make positive changes in your life. Also be sure to discuss any perceived weaknesses with your attorney so he/she is prepared if/when they are raised in the dispute. You don’t want your attorney surprised in court when he/she learns you were arrested for two DUIs with kids in the car or you’re living with someone dangerous, etc.

C. Gather relevant evidence to support your case.  You might hire experts, subpoena records; get copies of police reports, school records, phone records, doctors’ records, child protective service records, bank records, and any others that are relevant. If the time you spend with your children is at issue, keep a log of your custody/visitation dates and times. Our Family Wizard is a program with phone apps that can make your parent time tracking and shared custody easier.

D. Put your children’s needs front and center. Contested custody battles get heated. Be attuned with your children’s needs. Don’t be swept up by rage or vengeance. Above all else, don’t use or abuse your kids.

E. Stay calm, keep focused. Find and use techniques to keep calm or pull yourself off the ceiling when necessary. Focus only on the facts and arguments that matter. Showing the judge you are/can be calm, in control and a mature parent in the face of stress can say more to the judge than 10000 words. Lose your cool and you could risk losing your case.

Ordinarily, when parents are embroiled in child custody battles, at least one is being unreasonable. Don’t be that parent.

Be your best. Do your best.


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