Child custody is probably the most important issue to you in your separation or divorce. It’s crucial that your children end up with the best possible custody arrangement. These 8 strategies are designed to give you the edge in your custody dispute.
- Know the Factors the Court Will Use to Decide Your Case and Focus on Them
Many parents focus too much on trying to make their ex look bad to the court. Unless your ex has real issues (abusive, drugs, etc.) that strategy is sure to backfire. Instead you need to know the factors that the court will actually consider in makings its decision and focus on those while preparing your case. In Pennsylvania, for example, the court looks at 16 factors in making a custody determination. The court has to decide what is in the best interest of your children, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Therefore, you need to demonstrate that you are the one most able to provide your children with a safe and positive environment to grow. That means making sure you establish a nurturing home close to your children’s school, friends, extended family, enrolling your children in enrichment activities, and supporting and encouraging your children’s relationship with your ex.
- Establish a Favorable Custody Arrangement as Soon as You Separate
Custody battles are often won or lost at the time of separation. That’s because most couples fall into a default custody arrangement while they are waiting to go to court. When you finally get to court, the judge will be inclined to maintain the status quo. That means you need to aggressively seek as much time with your children as reasonable as soon as you separate. If possible, try to be the person who remains in the home, because the children will often live there primarily until custody is resovled. If that’s not possible, take your children with you when you move out if you can. In any event, try to impose a custody schedule that is favorable to you. Maintain contact with your children in other ways as well, such as driving them to and from school and activities. In short, do everything you can to have the majority of time with the children following separation.
- Gather Positive Evidence to Support Your Position
Don’t focus primarily on what you think your ex is doing wrong. Focus on what you are doing right. Gather evidence that shows why you will be the best parent to receive primary custody. Take photos of places you go or things you do with your children. Stay involved in their activities. Find neighbors, friends, teachers, etc. who can vouch for your abilities as a parent. Most importantly, show you are willing to encourage your children to have a good relationship with your ex.
- Avoid Lashing Out at Your Ex
Whatever you do, avoid badmouthing your ex, especially to your children. Judges detest when one parent attempts to alienate their children from the other parent. No matter how much you may hate your ex, you must accept that it is okay for your children to still love him or her. Avoid texting or emailing insults or disparaging remarks about your ex or making negative posts about them on social media. Also, you should read The Boy Crisis (even if your children are girls), which will help you appreciate the importance of both parents being involved in children’s lives and understand that post-separation conflict is often caused by different, but equally important, parenting styles. There are also many other steps you can take to protect your children’s well-being in divorce.
- Focus on Practical Issues
Focus on practical reasons why you should get primary custody, including the ability of your children to stay in the same school, the distance to your children’s friends or activities, and an accommodating work schedule. If those factors do not weigh in your favor, make every effort to change your circumstances. For example, move to a residence in your children’s school catchment area, even if it means a smaller house. Keep a record of these changes to show the court the adjustments you are making to enhance your children’s well-being.
- Keep Track of Negative Behavior by Your Ex
While you shouldn’t bad mouth your ex or focus on minor issues, it is important to keep track of any significant negative behavior. That would include things such as negative social media posts about you, insulting or demeaning texts or emails they send you, attempts to alienate you from your children, or actions taken to prevent you from seeing your children. This type of evidence can be presented in court if needed.
- Seriously Consider Mediation Instead of Hiring Attorneys
One of the most stressful aspects of custody, for both parents and the kids, is the legal fight (often made worse by attorneys). No one really “wins” if you end up in court. Mediation is really the best way to resolve your custody matter, according to Kevin Handy, a divorce mediator with SnapDivorce LLC, a firm specializing in divorce and custody mediation. Mediation allows parents to craft creative, custom-made parenting plans. That option is not readily available to parents who litigate their dispute in court. Custody mediation studies also show that mediation leads to more detailed parenting plans with higher rates of compliance, as both parents are fully invested and involved in drafting the plan. In contrast, court-imposed custody orders often result in contempt and frustration, causing you to end up back in court. Mediation will help you avoid a costly and lengthy legal battle.
- Redefine Winning
“Many parents go into custody disputes with the idea that ‘winning’ means obtaining sole custody of their children,” says Patricia Cooley, a divorce attorney in Pennsylvania. “That rarely happens, except in extreme cases involving addiction or abuse. Judges prefer that children maintain significant contact with both parents whenever possible.” This doesn’t mean that you have to accept a 50/50 custody arrangement, but don’t hurt your own chances by refusing anything but sole custody. You should also know that two of the most important factors correlated to the well-being of children following separation or divorce is (1) equally shared or almost equally shared custody time with the parents and (2) parents living within 20 minutes of each other (the closer the better). So, rethink the idea that you should have sole custody.