Divorce is a difficult experience for everyone. No one undertakes it lightly, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Once you are certain that your marriage has irretrievably broken down, or he has left for good, divorce and all the misery it entails is the only option. That said, sometimes, being apart once and for all draws a line under an unhappy relationship and can actually be a bit of a relief, although it is usually tough for the kids unless they have been actively abused by their father.
However, in many marriages, neither parent has been abusive towards the kids, and both parents love the children and want to play an important part in their lives after the divorce. It’s when this leads to a custody battle that things can get really complicated. If you can agree out of court, it’s best for all concerned. But, sometimes it just doesn’t work like that.
So, how can you swing the court’s decision in your favor? It isn’t necessarily the case that the mother always wins custody, times have moved on and the court’s will award it to the parent who seems most able to serve the child’s best interests.
Remember the old story about the rich mother who fled the country in wartime and left her child behind? A serving girl looked after the child, risking her life for him, loving him and treating him as her own, and then, years later, the real mother returned having decided it was safe to do so. Both claimed the right to have the child, so the case went before a judge. The judge drew a circle on the floor in chalk, and placed the child in the centre. He then instructed the two women to take hold of one of the child’s arms each, and pull. The woman who pulled the hardest and pulled the child to her side of the circle, he said, would be the winner.
The real mother grabbed her child’s arm, ready for the tug o’ war. The serving girl refused to take part, fearful of hurting the child. She said she would rather give him up than see him hurt.
Custody was, of course, awarded to the serving girl, who had proved beyond doubt that she had the child’s best interests at heart and was prepared to suffer for him and put hs needs before her own happiness.
It’s just a fable, of course, but one that any mother preparing to enter a custody court room to fight for the custody of her child would do well to bear in mind. Courts don’t take kindly to parents who try to put the other party down, badmouthing them and making exaggerated claims about their bad behavior. If there are real issues of problems with your ex partner’s behavior, such as substance abuse, violence or alcoholism, it will, of course, count against him.
The key to making sure that you are awarded custody of your child in court is to be thoroughly prepared. (Although it goes without saying that you should be sure in your heart that you are the one who will be best for the child of course!). Being prepared means doing some homework to find out what the courts will be looking for. Here are some pointers.
- Understand the ‘Better Parent Standard’. This is the benchmark standard that the courts will apply in making their decision. In order to resolve a custody dispute, the courts need to decide which of you is best equipped to be the main carer or sole carer for the child.
- Show that you have a clear understanding of your child’s physical and emotional needs. Focus on things like daily routines, a healthy diet and sports and lesiure activities that are part of your child’s life that you assist with.
- Courts are also, unless there is clear reason not to, likely to prefer giving custody to the parent who is prepared to agree to and work with the other parent’s visiting rights and time with the children. Courts take a dim view of a mother or father who is so bitter against the ex that they want to refuse access without a strong reason. So, being reasonable on this point will work in your favor.
- Keep and take to court a record of your own and your ex partner’s contact with the child. This includes regular phone calls, visits, days out etc. If, for example, your ex is claiming he has more contact with the child than he actually does, this will help your case.
- Be ready to prove what support payments have been made or missed.
- Demonstrating that you have made and continue to make efforts to keep the lines of communication open between you and your ex in matters of child care is another point that will help swing the courts in your favor. Courts, in general, prefer both parents to maintain contact with their children, even if custody is awarded to one parent over the other. Showing that you have a mature and reasonible approach with regard to this is one of the best things that you can do.
- Present yourself in the best possible light. Dress appropriately for the court hearing. This shows that you understand and appreciate the gravity of the occasion and have respect for the law. Incorrectly dressed moms or dads will not present themselves well, so wear a plain coloured suit or similarly sober outfit. Turning up in court dressed for a night out on the town in short skirt or short sleeved shirt will not impress the judge! Even if you think you should be able to express yourself through your style of dress and not be judged on it, a custody court is not the place to make this point!
- Observe court etiquette. However emotionally charged the moment, and whatever the provocation, only speak when you are spoken to and only answer the question you are asked. Never interrupt the judge or anyone else in a courtroom.
- Listen to the advice of your attorney, and follow it meticulously. He or she knows what they are doing, and will act in your best interests. That’s what you hired them for, so don’t imagine you know better, and don’t interfere.
- Some US states insist that you draw up a parenting plan prior to the hearing. If this is the case, be sure to have this prepared and take it to court. A parenting plan involves getting together with your ex to agree on things like weekends to be spent with which parent, school holiday time to be spent with which parent,
visiting rights and holiday plans. Being able to agree with your ex on this in advance is helpful, but if he won’t play ball, at least be ready to show the courts that you have tried.
- Make a note of all court dates and write them in your diary . Putting a big post it note on the fridge and anywhere else you can’t help but see it is also a good idea. Missing court dates is not likely to help win the court’s approval!
- By the same token, always answer correspondance from the court immediately. If you are not sure how you should respond in any instance, consult your attorney.
- Be yourself, and always tell the truth. Courts have a way of seeing through false personae, and lying in court is a definite ‘no no’.
- If, in spite of all your efforts to make the split amicable or at least civilized for the sake of the children, your ex insists on causing trouble for you, don’t take the law into your own hands. If he comes round causing trouble, ask him to leave, and if he doesn’t do so call the police immediately. That way not only do you and your kids stay safe, you also have an official record of his behavior.
- Keep personal feeelings for your ex out of court: they have no place there. A custody hearing is not concerned with you or your ex, it is concerned with your child and what’s best for him or her. Keeping that in mind is vital to winning custody. Read the chalk circle story again to remind you!
Court appearances are always stressful, and even more so when something as important as your child’s future is at stake. Take time to follow all the steps and get it right, and it should pay dividends. The courts really do have the best interests of your child at heart, so it’s your job to show them that you agree with that principle.