5 Tips from a Child Custody Lawyer

Child custody - lawyer tips

The months, weeks, and days leading up to your first child custody hearing can be extremely stressful.  The process can be even scarier for parents who may be going through a concurrent divorce, have limited resources, or who are just generally unfamiliar with courtroom procedures and formalities.  That said, regardless of resources or experience, with some preparation and planning you can make a convincing case in front of the judge, and win custody of your child.  While this article is not a replacement for the educated counsel you will receive from an experienced child custody lawyer, the tips described below can help you establish accurate expectations and prepare you for your hearing.

1. Dress Appropriately for Your Hearing

Putting your best foot forward can be even more important in court than anywhere else.  This doesn’t mean you have to dress to impress, but your attire should reflect the fact that you are a responsible parent who is aware of the importance of the hearing taking place.  The judges’s job in child custody cases is not to favor one parent over the other; their job is to protect the child(ren) from undue stress, and to make sure the child custody arrangement is an accurate reflection of the fitness of each parent.  So, before you walk out your door in the morning, you should ask yourself, “based on what I’m wearing, will the judge think I’m a good parent?”

When in doubt, ask your child custody attorney if your desire wardrobe is appropriate.  That said, you should arrive to court wearing conservative and professional clothing.  In most circumstances, this would mean a suite and tie for men or a conservative dresses, skirts, or slacks paired with a button-down shirt or blouse with a blazer.  Regardless of the warmer climates or local culture norms, a parent should never wear shorts, jeans, or t-shirts to any courtroom proceeding.

2. Understand Courtroom Etiquette

Simply put, you need to be on your best behavior.  Despite the high-stress nature of a child custody battle, emotional outbursts — no matter how “right” you are — are not acceptable, and can make you seem less fit as a parent in the eye’s of the judge.  On the other hand, if your ex-spouse was to have an outburst and you manage to stay calm [and respect the court] by not returning fire, this can help the impression you’re making to the judge.

Regardless, you should discuss courtroom etiquette with your own child custody lawyer to make sure you have a clear understanding of what you can expect, and specific “dos” and “don’ts” ahead of your custody hearing.

3. Know Who’s in Charge. Hint: It’s Not You

As you may notice from the first two tips above, both your clothing and your behavior are important — and both aim to give a good impression to the judge.  While both civil and criminal cases can be heard by a jury, in child custody cases the ultimate decision comes down to the judge.  And even if you don’t agree with child custody order at the end of the process, remember #2 above and do not yell or have any outbursts just because you don’t like the result… you will likely have the right to appeal the order.

Listen to Your Custody Attorney

When in doubt, listen to your lawyer.  In the courtroom, while the judge is in charge of everyone and everything, the child custody lawyers are still in charge of [and responsible for] their clients.

4. Have Your Custody Lawyer Explain the State’s Laws

Laws can vary dramatically from state-to-state, and it’s no different with child custody law.  Now that you know who’s in charge, and how you should dress and behave, it’s time to get educated about the specific rules governing over your case.  A good starting point to educate yourself a bit would be the Child Custody Summaries of State Laws at FindLaw.com.  There, you can read a quick summary of your state’s child custody law focus, and you can also click on your state for a more detailed explanation.

For example, in the State of Hawaii, the courts do recognize both legal custody and physical custody.  As such, there could be a scenario where one parent has sole physical custody (the child lives fully under their care), however the other parent shares in legal custody (they participate and have a say in major life decisions for the child).  Hawaii will also listen to and recognize the child’s own wishes in custody cases, as well as recognize grandparent visitation rights.

Regardless of the research you do on your own, it’s still vitally important that you have your own custody lawyer explain the “fine print,” and prepare you for any nuances that may adversely affect your case or your desired outcome.

5. Sole Custody and the “Better Parent” Standard

If one parent is seeking sole custody of the child for any reason, the “better parent” standard comes into play.  Essentially, the judge needs to decide not only if one parent is more fit than the other, but also decide if the other parent is unfit.  With that, the burden of proof for the parent seeking sole custody is much higher.  The bottom line is that in these cases, the court must decide if there is a “better parent,” which is particularly difficult when both parents have been equally involved in the child’s life thus far.

Regardless, judges are generally reluctant to awarding sole custody because in most circumstances, it’s widely believed to be in the child’s best interest to have both parents involved.  Still, if you or your ex are seeking sole custody, it’s important to avoid “trashing” one another during custody hearing.  Just focus on making the best case that you are a fit parent and the best thing for your child.


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