When child custody is being disputed, missteps can be easy to make and are difficult to reverse. For a father to succeed, it is essential that he makes smart decisions early on and has a solid understanding of the factors that Family Court Judges consider when determining child custody.
Using these criteria as guidance while building your case will help you to effectively demonstrate your parenting capabilities, as well as commitment to, and involvement with your child. While no strategies are guaranteed to win custody of your child, following these preparation tips will help you strengthen your case and protect your rights as a parent.
Be Actively Involved
Make sure you are able to demonstrate that you are significantly involved in your child’s life by taking an active role in the care, development, and discipline of your child. If you child is young, participate in feeding, bathing, walking, reading, napping and medical care. As they grow older, take part in their educational development and extracurricular activities. Get to know your children’s teachers, doctors, counselors, and coaches. Your ability to demonstrate the extent and quality of time with your child prior to and post separation is critical. If the other parent is interfering with your involvement, document your attempts and the resistance that you are receiving.
Establish a Physical Custody Schedule
If you live separately from the other parent, it is critical that you negotiate a physical custody schedule that accurately represents your long-term goal of shared parenting, ideally before a custody petition or complaint has been filed. If you currently have a visitation agreement, make every effort not to miss any of your scheduled time.
Spend as much time with your child as possible. Once parents have been following a set schedule for a significant amount of time, the Family Court will look to this schedule as the status quo and Judges don’t like to change what appears to be “already working”. NOTE: Percentage of Physical Custody is generally calculated by the number of overnights the child spends with each parent per year.
Promote Involvement of the other Parent
Show that you encourage the contact and active involvement between your child and their other parent. Unless clear evidence shows the child is in danger while in their care, the Family Court will frown upon your interference with the child’s relationship to their other parent. During a dispute, don’t encourage your child to call other adults by parental names such as “Mom” or “Dad”; this will cause tension, confusion, and it may be interpreted as Parental Alienation by the Family Court. Avoid any actions that clearly alienate your child from their other parent.
Provide a Healthy, Stable Environment
Present a safe, nurturing and stable environment. Demonstrate that you provide a healthy environment by maintaining a steady, clutter free home with a bedroom for your child and a safe play space. Provide regular, nutritious meals and keep a record of your grocery receipts.
Be Dependable, Demonstrate Consistency
Always be punctual for exchanges, pick-ups, and drop-offs. Provide younger children with a steady routine to encourage a sense of security and self-discipline. If the other parent is unreliable and often late for scheduled exchanges, clearly document these occasions. Maintain records of your correspondence with the other parent that demonstrates your reliability and commitment to your child’s needs.
Keep Your Composure and Put Your Child First
Custody disputes are often contentious and highly emotional, but maintaining self-control is paramount. Whether you are still living together or in separate households, it is critical that you remain calm and collected in all interactions. Communication with the other parent should be mild-mannered. When discussing parenting matters, keep the topic centered around the needs and well-being of the child.
Prior to any exchanges or interactions with the other parent, remind yourself to be non-confrontational with your actions and words. Your interactions during child exchanges can be cited in evidence. If a contentious issue is brought up in front of the child, gracefully request that you both continue the conversation via e-mail or during a time when the child isn’t present.
Connect with Other Parents
It’s important that your parenting efforts and commitment to your child is witnessed by others in the community. Maintain an active rapport with fellow parents and families. Join a playdate group, schedule weekly outings with other families, or attend kid-friendly community events. These parents will be able to attest to your involvement and behavior around your child, as well as demonstrate to the Judge that you have maintained a strong support network. If testimony is needed to support your custody case, these individuals can shed some positive light.
Parenting Skills & Responsibilities
It may become necessary to demonstrate your parental skills and responsibility to the Family Court.
Depending on your case, you may need to highlight your competence in:
If you can improve or modify your current situation, behaviors, or parenting skills that positively impact your child, you should implement those changes immediately. Do not underestimate how much a disgruntled ex will try to place your parenting skills in question.
Keep Impeccable Documentation
It is essential to maintain a daily journal with accurate times and locations of events and incidents. Log activities, adventures, and milestones with your child and any incidents or confrontation involving the other parent. It’s best to record information soon after the event occurred and make sure your writing is legible in case it is used as evidence.
Keep all communication with your ex including email, text messages, voicemails, instant messages, and handwritten notes/letters. Maintain an organized and labeled file folder and photo album. Keep accurate financial records with bank statements, receipts, pay stubs, and child support payment history. If there has been any concerns or incidents of domestic violence, drug or child abuse, or false allegations, keep accurate notes, obtain any available police reports, and above all, learn how to collect powerful evidence and organize it for your case.
For further guidance on how to gather and prepare evidence for a child custody case, read Evidence Strategies for Child Custody, an essential guide book for any parent in a custody dispute.
Parental Alienation & Slander
While things are heated, do not expose your child to the dysfunction or any resentment that you may have towards your ex. Do not try to sabotage, discourage, undermine or interfere with your child’s relationship to their other parent, no matter how covert. Never share inappropriate information regarding the custody case or make them feel like they have to choose a side. A child has a right to a relationship with the other parent that is free of negative influence.
Remember, if you degrade your ex in front of your child, you are essentially degrading a part of your child. This behavior can cause serious harm to their wellbeing and can be interpreted as a form of emotional abuse. Family Courts take Parental Alienation very seriously. It is your responsibility to help your child to adjust physically and emotionally to new custody arrangements.
Unwillingness to Co-Parent, Being the Difficult Parent
Do not make unilateral decisions on matters that should be discussed by both parents (ie. Removing the child from their school and enrolling them in another). Do not withhold important information from the other parent such as your child’s school or medical documents. While maintaining a healthy boundary, demonstrate your flexibility and willingness to work with the other parent. Document your ex’s resistance to co-parent, tendency to create conflict or any unilateral decisions made.
Present yourself as more cooperative and willing to work together. Do not engage in any behavior or actions that encourage the Judge to pin you as the difficult parent. The majority of cases that actually reach trial include at least one parent who can be deemed abnormally difficult and/or mentally unstable. Judges will try to identify early on which parent is resisting an amicable situation or not considering the best interest of the child.
If your ex has a high-conflict personality (HCP), continue to show your willingness and attempts to co-parent until a proper custody is ordered. When negotiating a parenting agreement with an HCP, a parallel parenting arrangement may be better suited.
Never prematurely move out of the family’s primary residence. If you live in a safe and stable home, it is preferable not to move during a custody dispute. This can be construed as abandonment and can negatively impact custody rulings, child support payments, and alimony. If it is necessary to live apart from the primary residence, do not leave without securing a signed parenting agreement that includes a physical schedule outlining your percentage of time and overnights with the child. When at all possible, stay in the primary residence.
Signing Off on Temporary Custody
Signing off on an unequal or unfair temporary custody agreement before the final order is made can greatly weaken your case. Many fathers find that a “temporary” custody arrangement often becomes permanent and it can be a lengthy and difficult process to change. If a father aims to secure equal time with his child, he needs to show that it is in their best interest and arrange as much time as possible from the start.
Exhibiting Anger, Loss of Control, Threats
Unfortunately, the actions of males are more easily construed as violent, angry or abusive. You must pay particular attention to your impulses, softening your communication and mannerisms during this time. Do not speak or send anything to your ex that may be easily misinterpreted or demonstrates an inability to manage your anger. Don’t take to a social networking site to blow off some steam. These public posts can be easily documented and used against you and your case. Keep your emotions in check—it is best to assume that your ex is recording and documenting your conversations and interactions to use as evidence.
If you have been convicted of domestic violence, gaining custody will be more challenging, but you will likely be granted sufficient visitation if you can demonstrate that your child isn’t in any danger while in your care. Domestic violence and other abuse allegations are rampant in Family Court cases, so it is best to avoid any conflict where the facts could easily be distorted. If there’s a scheduled interaction such as an exchange, bring a witness with you or arrange to meet in a public location.
These days, parents have lost custody of their children due to spanking or utilizing other forms corporal punishment. Although it may be considered legal in some states, corporal punishment is often seen as an inappropriate form of discipline and is frequently used against custody cases by being construed as child abuse. If your discipline includes spanking or physical repercussions, stop immediately and use alternative discipline techniques.
Drugs, Alcohol, Irresponsible Lifestyle
Withdraw from using any recreational drugs, excessive alcohol consumption or boasting an irresponsible lifestyle. A Judge may determine that a parent who drinks irresponsibly or is frequently out “partying” has a diminished capacity to care for a child or a tendency to be more neglectful. It’s imperative to adjust your lifestyle and engage in more benign activities while your custody case is pending. If your custody case is high-conflict, even a casual glass of wine every night can be misconstrued as irresponsible.
Dating and New Relationships
Use caution when dating during a custody dispute. Depending on the presiding state, Family Courts have varying perspectives about introducing a new romantic or living partner into the mix during custody dispute. While the child is in your care, the traditional advice is to not have sleepovers until the court makes a ruling. If you have developed a serious relationship with a new partner, be able to demonstrate that it is stable and healthy for your child to be exposed to. For your child’s sake, take it slow when introducing this new partner to your child’s home and daily life.
If you aim to secure the best custody arrangement for your child, it’s critical to prepare yourself thoroughly. Regardless of how good a parent you are or how unfit the other parent is, you must be able to provide credible and compelling evidence. For advanced strategies on presenting effective evidence and witness testimonies, please refer to Evidence Strategies for Child Custody.
Note: If a custody evaluation is ordered by the court, you should be cooperative, honest, and efficient. For detailed information on preparing, read American Bar Association: Client Preparation for Custody Evaluations and Court-Ordered Mediation