Create the best possible image of yourself if there is any chance that youíll end up involved in a custody dispute. The judge wants to hear facts demonstrating the kind of parent you are. Your past conduct is the best measure of how you will care for your children. And, you will be doing something inherently right in the process, acting in the best interests of your children.
By the time of trial, or serious settlement discussions that typically begin within weeks of trial and sometimes continue on the courthouse steps, have the facts ready that literally cry out, ďYou are the parent of choice for your children.Ē Continually demonstrate that you are the one looking out for the best interests of your children in your active role in caring for them.
Some of the most common factors that the court considers in determining your childís best interests are:
1. The health, safety and welfare of your child;
2. Any history of abuse by you against your child;
3. The desire to avoid uprooting your child from an established mode of living;
4. Your ability to love your child, provide ethical, emotional and intellectual guidance;
5. Your ability to care for your child, but physical handicap alone is not a valid reason to deny custody;
6. Your childís preference, not asked of children under age ten, and given increasing weight, if based on facts, for children of age fourteen and older;
7. Which alternative would be the least detrimental to your child;
8. The interests that your child shares with you, such as music and hobbies; and
9. Your ability to share your child with the other parent.
If the court is forced to pick, it wants to pick the best parent while encouraging continuing contact with both. If you want to be the primary parent, get busy and show that you are in fact the primary caretaker. Your actions, especially as observed by others, will speak far louder than your words. Establish a well-known pattern of caring for all aspects of your child.
The suggestions given above in ß 1.06, What Your Children Need, are a start. Stay involved and spend a substantial amount of time with and for your children. When a judge or mediator asks you about your children, youíll be able to smile and rattle off the kind of information that only comes from a concerned parent.
Frank was too busy with a new girlfriend when he separated from Pat to spend time with his preschool children. When he tried to get back into their lives, he found they had adjusted by putting him out of their minds. Pat ended up with the children and moved away. Frank now sees his children once or twice a year.
Avoid doing or saying anything that might look like youíre using your children against your spouse. The court will punish you if it suspects that youíre dragging your children through a custody battle to satisfy your ego. Keep your slate as clean as possible. Never give your spouseís attorney a chance to bring in a witness to testify you said youíd do anything to get back at your spouse, especially keeping the children because he or she loved them so much.
Parents are frequently accused of trying to get custody only for purposes of child support. Mothers may be accused of trying to increase the support they will get, and fathers may be accused of trying to avoid paying support. Even joint custody is occasionally resisted or sought only in an attempt to affect the child support obligation. Donít say anything regarding support that gives your spouse ammunition to use against you. If thereís a custody battle going on, youíre living in a glass house. Everything you do and say is subject to scrutiny. The financial ability to raise the children isnít even an issue in a custody proceeding. The court has the power to order the non-custodial parent to pay the support reasonably necessary to raise the children.
What about an example of what not to do pending a court hearing on custody? If things are going too smoothly, simply have someone of the opposite sex stay overnight with you while the children are living with you. Your spouse may claim that your conduct is having a detrimental effect on the children. Donít give your spouse the ammunition and a reason to use it against you. He or she will be as upset as you would be if your spouse brought someone into his or her home, especially to stay overnight, that began to look like another parent, whether in your imagination or in fact as perceived by your children.
You may feel there is nothing bad about you bringing another adult into your home, and you may be right. However, it shows a lack of devotion on your part if you invite your friend all or most of the times the children are with you. Itís conduct guaranteed to inflame your spouse, assuming you are in the family home with the children. Thereís a lack of sensitivity to your childrenís needs in introducing them to a new person in your life when they need all the assurance from you they can get. Do you want to have the best chance for custody? Donít have a new partner stay overnight or live with you while you have the children. There will be plenty of time for you to develop your new life once you get the life you already have on a solid footing.
The same advice applies if you have moved out of the house and are visiting with your children as often as possible. Avoid having someone over, much less spending the night, when you have the children. Youíll give your spouseís attorney something to hammer at. As time passes, it is natural to develop new relationships. Donít rush into one. In particular, donít put your children in a position that forces them to be loyal to the absent parent by confronting them with a new partner too soon.
Putting your best foot forward doesnít mean to put your own life on hold until the custody issue is resolved. It does mean that you should consider in advance how a description of your conduct would sound in the courtroom. Exercise discretion. Use a babysitter. If you want to spend the night with someone, do it when your children are staying with your spouse. If they never stay with your spouse, you donít have a custody issue and you can be a little more relaxed about your conduct.
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How to Win Child Custody