Courts decide on child custody based on the “best interests of the child,” a principle that focuses on the child’s needs and not on the parents’ desires. Depending upon your level of involvement in the well-being of your child, you may be able to demonstrate that you are the “better” parent who is best suited to deliver on the “best interests of the child” criteria. Here are some practical tips that can come in handy:
- General guidelines
- Making an impression in a custody evaluation (if one is ordered)
- Preparing for court hearings
- Demonstrating that you can deliver on the “best interests of the child” criteria
A child custody battle can be a daunting task for any parent. Negotiating with your ex-spouse in creating a parenting plan, helping children cope with the separation, building up the case with your child custody lawyer, getting ready for hearings, attending to your daily grind, etc., are things that can keep you occupied and stressed until the divorce and custody cases are resolved. To top it all, you may desperately focus on your child’s custody, and, therefore, feel pressured to create a perception to the judge that you are the “better parent” and deserve custody.
Though you cannot suddenly step up in the post-separation period and start behaving as a model parent, here is a step-by-step guide that can help you give the impression that you are a responsible, caring, and dignified parent.
- Be cooperative, compromising, and courteous with your ex-spouse despite the anger and hostility you may be feeling inside. If you don’t, your hostile behavior can be used against you in the courts.
- The courts want to check if you care for your children. So, do not miss out on the permitted visits according to the visitation schedule.
- Do not involve your children in the custody battle. Keep them away from it, but do help them cope with the new reality. Sharing details of the case with your children can infuriate the courts.
- Sometimes a parent who loves and cares can say the wrong things and wreck his/her image in the courts. You need to be regarded as a loving and caring parent by the court. Control your feelings and do everything in your power to convey that perception.
- Hire an experienced child custody attorney – ideally, someone who has handled a case that is similar to yours.
Making an Impression in a Custody Evaluation
The courts can order a custody evaluation, and typically, the judges give a lot of weight to an evaluator’s recommendations. Therefore, making a good impression on the evaluator is important. Here are a few tips that can help:
- Be punctual for the interview.
- Dress formally, as you would if you were called for a job interview.
- Be sincere and honest because every statement you make during the evaluation will be verified. Moreover, custody evaluators are professionals who can see through lies or insincerity.
- Be reasonable.
- Explain (when asked) how you have acted and will continue to act in the “best interests of the child.”
- Evaluators understand that parents are likely to be tense, emotional, or nervous during the evaluation. Therefore, you don’t have to disguise your true feelings. Just be honest.
- Keep all documents ready and provide them to the evaluator when he/she asks for them. If you don’t have a document, explain why it isn’t available.
- Stay focused. Answer all questions truthfully and to the point.
- Don’t badmouth or make threats about your ex-spouse. Don’t ask your children to badmouth him/her either. When asked about your problems with your ex-spouse, simply state the facts.
- Don’t be in a rush to answer questions. Think and answer. Ask for clarifications if any question is not clear.
- Your focus should be on answering the evaluator’s questions – not on your present condition or state of mind.
- After the evaluation, do not keep calling the evaluator unsolicited, or visiting his/her office without an appointment.
Preparing for Court Hearings
If the courts do not order an evaluation, then you need to prepare for the court hearings. Here are some tips:
- Ask your family law attorney to explain the state’s custody laws. Get familiar with the laws and become an informed litigant.
- Understand the factors that courts consider while deciding who the better parent is. Also understand what the courts consider to be the best interests of the child (we have provided a primer in the next section, but it can vary from state to state).
- Gather and bring the documents required in the court (for example, child support payments, visitation schedule, copies of social media posts, phone call records, etc.).
- Ask your divorce lawyer about how to behave appropriately in court.
- Dress formally, like you are going for a job interview.
- Learn from your lawyer what to expect during the court hearing and discuss the best and worst possible outcomes with the lawyer so that you are prepared for what is coming at you.
Demonstrating that You Can Deliver on the “Best Interests of the Child” Criteria
The courts decide child custody based on “the best interests of the child,” which are focused on the child’s education, character building, and overall well-being, in addition to basic daily needs like food, shelter, and clothing. The courts decide who makes the “better parent” after verifying the following:
- Which parent is better equipped to provide the child with a safe and secure home?
- Which parent can provide the child with adequate nourishment and proper clothing?
- Which parent can better supervise the child?
- Which parent can provide adequate emotional support to the child?
- Which parent was involved (in the pre-divorce period) in the caring, education, and well-being of the child?
- What is the educational level of each parent?
- Has either parent abused the child or exposed the child to domestic violence?
- Has either parent abused alcohol or drugs?
- What is the child’s relationship with his/her parents and siblings?
- Does the child wish to live with his mother or father? (The courts take the child’s wishes into account if he is considered old enough to decide according to the state’s laws. For example, in Utah, the courts sometimes give additional consideration to a child’s preference if he/she is at least 14 years old.)
- Are the parents mentally and physically fit to care for the child?
- If the child has special needs, which parent is best equipped to provide for such needs?
- Which parent is level-headed and responsible?
- Any other factor, depending upon the circumstances of the case, as the courts deem fit.
If you check all the right boxes, the courts are likely to consider you as the parent most appropriate to exercise the majority of custody. That said, you cannot start acting in the “best interests of the child” only after separating or filing for divorce just because you want to impress the judge. The attorneys and the courts dig into your records and past behavior before deciding. So, if you have not been a model parent prior to divorce, the best course of action is to cooperate and compromise with your ex-spouse and make the best possible case in a dignified manner. On the other hand, if you have always been involved with the child and acted in his/her best interests, then the courts are likely to consider you as the “better parent.”