I don't know if anyone is ever comfortable with the idea of “fighting” over their children, but child custody disputes are the most common and difficult—both emotionally and from a legal standpoint—areas of conflict that I see in my West Michigan family law practice.
What do you do if you are one of those parents, and you find yourself on the brink of what feels like an emotional war over your kids. Or, what if it's already turned nasty, and everything you do seems to be getting back to the judge?
Begin by asking yourself: what type of parent do you believe you are? Would a judge think you were a good parent if they could see your behavior, even outside of the courtroom, during the case? Do your decisions reflect a parent that puts the needs of their children ahead of themselves? It's important to understand that your day-to-day actions and words—whether done and said in the heat of an emotional conversation with ex or not— will make their way to the judge if your case goes to trial. And if you are reading this and thinking this won’t happen in your specific situation, I implore you to think again.
Emotions and feelings of betrayal or entitlement aside, you need to understand what any judge hearing your child custody case will be concerned with.
Judges are concerned with the "moral fitness" or character of the person standing in front of them and that person's ability to make good decisions as a parent. Yes, that means that whether you like it or not, or you think it is fair or not, your judge will use the evidence that is presented to her in your trial as the basis of determining your character. That means your judge is tasked by the law to make their best decision about who are you as a parent, and whether you truly put your kids’ best interests first, without the benefit of having seen who you may have been before you found yourself in this awful situation. So what do you do to ensure that your judge sees you in the light you see yourself as your children’s parent? Here are some DOs and DON'Ts I recommend to my own clients to help them prevail in their child custody cases:
1. DO stay active with your children's education, regardless of where your kids are currently staying during the school week.
- Attend all parent/teacher conferences, and stay in weekly contact with your kids’ teachers through email, by telephone or in person.
- Be proactive about addressing issues your children may be having in school.
- Make it a priority to attend all of your kids’ extracurricular activities, even if that’s something you and your ex used to divide and conquer. It’s a whole new world during a child custody dispute, and your focus should be on the importance of your kids’ education and development.
2. DO get your kids counseling, even even if it’s just a few sessions with a therapist who can help them work through their new realities.
Every child copes with change in his own way. Even if you think your children are handling things well, every child in the middle of a custody war between two adults they probably love benefits from having a neutral third party they can talk to about their feelings. Your children need to feel safe while this process is ongoing. And remember, your children feel your anxiety and frustration, even when you don’t think they are paying attention, take care of their mental health.
3. DON’T date during your divorce!
- Instead, DO focus on your kids because it shows the court that you are placing the children's needs ahead of your own.
- But what if I really, really need to date? I am going to restate what I just said, in case you skipped over it to get to this section: DON’T date during your divorce. However, if you do choose to date,
- DON'T introduce the children to your significant others. Be mindful that your children are struggling emotionally with the breakup of the family. If your significant other is important to you, and there is a genuine chance that they are going to remain in your life after the case, then they will understand that there will be a more appropriate time in the future for you to introduce them to your children.
- That definitely means DON'T have your significant other spend the night when you have your kids!
- DON'T spend the night away from home unless it is for business (and if it is for business, DO keep documentation). Staying the night away from home can show, once again, that your needs come before your children’s. And, it can be misread as a possible affair.
- Even if you were never married to the other parent and are in the middle of a child custody battle, take note. Having multiple new people in and out of the children's lives is not going to be viewed as healthy or appropriate by your judge. So, DON'T do it.
4. DON’T use social media. For more insights into why I think my clients are best served taking a social media break during a child custody case, see a recent post I wrote on this very topic.
5. DON'T be insane!
- That means DON'T engage in name calling, arguing, or using foul language in front of your kids. They’re already dealing with enough. Your inappropriate behavior toward your children’s other parent— in front of your children no less— demonstrates a lack of discretion, and it places your children on the front line of the war.
- DON’T be insane in your written communications, either.
- DO make sure that all verbal and written communication to the other parent is relevant to your children.
- DO remember: Anything you put in writing can and will show up in court. If you send it, the judge may read it.
- DO ask yourself before you hit send: Is what I am saying in this email or text really how I want the judge to see me? If the answer isn’t a resounding ‘YES’, delete it.
- DON’T disparage your kids’ other parent in front of them.
- Instead, DO focus your activities around your kids when they are with you.
- DON’T spend what should be quality time with your children making sarcastic comments about your ex to them, or to others in front of them. By doing so, you may be unintentionally making your kids feel like they have to take sides on which parent they like more.
- I’m guessing none of you really wanted things to go this way, but your kids are the ones with the least control in these situations, so DON’T add to their stress by making them feel like they are the frayed rope in an angry game of tug-of-war.
- DON’T stalk, harass, or repeatedly call your ex. The last thing you need to have happen is the judge to call your mental health into question. And engaging those types of behaviors will certainly give the judge cause to ponder your character as a person and as a fit parent.
- DON’T fight at encounters or exchanges. You are there to drop off or pick up your children, not to engage in battle with the other parent. And if you are having issues with the other parent's behavior at exchanges, DO document the exchanges via video.
6. DO continue taking your kids to church if that’s what you’ve done historically.
- DO feel free to enroll them in church-related activities that are age appropriate.
- However, if you and your children have no history of church attendance prior to the custody case, DON’T use your new-found interest in church as a reason to try to prohibit the other parent from weekend parenting time.
This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised:
7. DON’T do anything illegal.
- DON’T get arrested. Really, if you can't stop yourself from doing things that could during your child custody case, why would the judge have any reason to believe you should be the parent who is awarded custody?
- DON'T even risk the seemingly "silly little things" like driving without a license.
- If your license has been revoked or suspended, DON’T drive. Doing so shows complete disregard for the law. Judges don’t like that.
- DON’T use drugs and/or alcohol.
- You may be required by the court to take a drug screen.If the other party has alleged that you have a history of illegal drug use—DO voluntarily obtain a drug screen during the case.
- And, above all else, DON’T test "dirty" on any mandatory drug screens. That's a sure way to say ‘goodbye’ to being granted custody of your children.
8. DO behave as though all of your activities are being documented by a private investigator and will be used at trial.
It's not uncommon for private investigators to be hired in custody cases. Who knows your habits better than your ex? They know where you party. If they are attempting to make you look bad, what better way than to get video footage of you drunk at the bar. And while we are on the topic of bars:
9. DON’T go to bars or nightclubs while your child custody case is ongoing. These types of activities will only make you look bad at trial, as there is no way to spin frequenting bars and acting like a drunk for a judge. Believe it or not, the risks of unintentionally behaving badly after a night at the bar far outweigh the benefits, even though it may not always feel that way.
It may feel like the DON’Ts outnumber the DOs at a point in time in your life when you already probably don’t feel like you have much control. This is when I remind my clients that even though it doesn’t feel like it right now, their child custody case is not going to last forever. Remember:
DO take your kids’ best interests into consideration before you say or do anything during a child custody case. Even if you believe you always have and do to this day, now is the time to be even more diligent. And honestly, your kids need it right now more ever. Custody battles are frustrating and hard. Judges make custody determinations specifically on whom they believe is really going to look out for your children’s best interests.
DO give the judge as many reasons as possible to like you not only as a parent, but also as a person, and to rule in your favor.
Fighting for your children is a hard enough process to go through.
DON’T make choices or mistakes that you could easily avoid. DO everything with the best outcome for your children in mind.