Whether you’ve filed for divorce or simply split from a partner, everything becomes more complicated when there are children involved. While many separated couples come to a custody agreement outside of the courtroom, sometimes court just can’t be avoided.
There are many factors that go into making up a judge’s mind in these sensitive cases, so you need to be as informed and prepared as possible as you move through these legal proceedings. Keep reading to learn about how to win your custody battle, whether you’re the filer or defendant.
Analyze The Current Situation
Before you do anything, first assess where you are. Are you actually currently in a legal custody battle, or are you and the other parent or party just disagreeing? You’ll know if you’re officially in a custody battle if either you or the other party has filed a custody petition. If the other party has filed, you will be “served” with a copy of the papers, generally within three months of filing depending on the state.
Once you’re sure things have fully escalated to going to court, it’s important to quickly start your next steps.
Hire A Lawyer
The first thing you should do is hire a lawyer. If you’re the one filing for custody, you should seek consultation with a lawyer before even filing.
You should specifically get a custody lawyer—you want someone who is exceedingly familiar with both federal and state laws, and who knows all the ins and outs of court proceedings.
It’s incredibly important to find a lawyer to represent you. They will not only provide you with legal advice and help prepare you for court, but will present your case as professionally as possible, taking out any emotions that might paint you negatively if you represent yourself.
Determine What The Parameters Of The Custody Case Are
Are you seeking for full custody? Is the other party? Determine exactly what you want from this custody battle, and why. Generally, the filer will have a specific reason for filing for custody, such as believing the other parent unfit or because of a move on the horizon that makes equal custody impossible.
Determine the reason for the court and start preparing your case based around it.
Preparing Your Case
Start Gathering Positive Evidence—Establish Your Relationship With Your Children
The most important part of preparing your case is establishing that you are a good parent and able to care for your child. Because dealing with cases of custody dispute is such a delicate matter, the judge will be most concerned with what is termed “Best Interest of the Child” Standard.
But how do you prove that you are in the best interest of the child? Start gathering evidence that paint you in a positive light and as an active and engaged parent in your child’s life. This type of evidence can include pictures of you with the child that you print out and submit to the court. You should also document all the time that you spend with your child, including time and dates.
If for some reason there is a space of time that you can’t be with your child, such as traveling for work, be sure to document this as well. If you can’t be with your child for an extended period of time, you need to prove that it’s for a good and legitimate reason.
Also consider having an in-home custody evaluation done. This impartial evaluation will prove to the court that you are capable of providing for your child in a stable and safe environment. Of course, it works both ways: if your home environment proves unsafe or unsuitable for a child, then this will necessarily hinder your case. So, do your best to prepare for this evaluation.
Gather Negative Evidence Against The Other Parent
Just as you should gather evidence to prove you’re a good parent, you should also keep track of everything to prove that the other isn’t. They haven’t made an effort to see the child, or keep missing scheduled meetings? Mark them down. These will all go toward building a case against them.
Also take note of anything else that will mark them as a poor parent or guardian, such as substance problems, unstable employment, or abusive behaviors. Keep careful records and photographic evidence to provide as much solid proof as possible.
Don’t lie, though. You only want to cast stones that are real and that you can prove. Otherwise, you risk coming off as dishonest and unreliable to the court.
Also, try not to discuss the proceedings with your child, or put any negative ideas in their head. If a child’s testimony is necessary, it is important that it seems as though they are relating their own experience, rather than spewing the words of one parent against another. Courts want to ensure that children are able to maintain healthy relationships with both parents regardless of the outcome.
Be Aware Of Your Faults—And Be Prepared To Address Them
Just as you are gathering evidence against the other parent, they’re gathering evidence against you. So, it is necessary that you are on your best behavior and do all you can to ensure to a courtroom that you are a reliable presence in your child’s life and able to care for them.
You should also be prepared for anything that they might have against you. If you’ve previously suffered from a substance abuse problem, prove that you are actively seeking the help you need by going to AA meetings, seeing a therapist, etc. Also try to limit the presence of other people in your life who could prove a liability, such as significant other who may have a record.
If you’ve had trouble maintaining a steady job in the past, it is imperative that you find some sort of employment, especially while the trial is on-going. Having proof that you can actually support your child is imperative to deciding a custody case.
By getting ahead of your faults and actively addressing them in a positive and truthful manner, the judge will be more likely to sympathize with you and appreciate your efforts.
Prepping Your Statement
Your main job once you get into that courtroom will be delivering your statement, so it is important that you get it right. Your attorney should help you prepare and rehearse this statement. Not only is word choice important, but also inflection and appearance—you want to seem as sympathetic and responsible as possible.
Self-Presentation: In And Out Of Court
Best Interest Of The Child: All About Perception
As we mentioned above, the “Best Interest of the Child” Standard is a main thing judges look to in custody battles before determining a verdict. What this standard really comes down to is perception.
This is why how you conduct yourself both in and out of court is so central to winning your case. If you react to anything with anger or other extreme emotions, warranted or not, this will leave a bad impression in the eyes of the court.
How To Conduct Yourself In Court…
Firstly, dress sharp. Whether we like to admit or not, we do judge books by their covers, and you at least want to show that you’re making an effort for such an important hearing.
While in court, your lawyer will present your case and question witnesses/the other party. Remain as placid and stoic as possible—don’t let anyone get a rise out of you.
When you’re on the stand, recite the speech that you’ve rehearsed with your lawyer. Your lawyer should also have prepped for you for the types of questions you’ll like see in your cross-examination from the other party’s lawyer.
This attorney will try their best to rile you and get you to volunteer information that they can negatively twist. Only answer with the bare minimum and be sure to keep a cool head.
And How To Conduct Yourself Outside Court
Just as you should keep a handle on your emotions in court, so should you out of court. If dealing with the other parent can be emotionally electric, try to limit time with them as much as possible. You can do this by scheduling pick-ups/drop-offs around school and other neutral territory. By limiting your interaction, you limit the chances of an unfortunate encounter and of them compiling further evidence against you.
How To Handle A Negative Verdict
If even after everything the verdict does not rule in your favor, accept it with grace. The custody battle may be lost but the custody war is not yet over, so you must conduct yourself with professionalism and grace.
Within 30 days, you can file for an appeal. Or, you can petition for a change in the custody agreement a few years down the line if there’s been a change in circumstance to warrant it. You may be dealing with the same judge, so it is important that you present yourself in the best light possible.