Virginia courts prefer custody arrangements that emphasize and balance a child’s need to have time with both parents through a reasonable schedule. Parents start out with joint custody rights. However, if you believe that it is in your child’s best interest not to have joint custody, be prepared to engage in what could be one of the most stressful experiences of your lifetime. When your goal is to be the primary custodian, “winning” the case often turns on a showing that you are the most involved parent in your child’s daily life. If you appear in court well prepared and focused on what really matters, you can avoid common missteps that could have a lasting impact on your most valuable asset – your child.
1. Keep Meticulous Records – assemble all photos, documents,school records, physician records, and bank records. Keep a journal in which you describe situations with the other parent that concern you; document how much time you each spend with your child; and write down information about times your child returns to you dirty, hungry, tired, injured or late.
2. Find Witnesses – family, friends, neighbors, teachers, sports coaches and anyone else with personal knowledge about your family who can testify about your parenting and what the problems are with your co-parent. Have witnesses at visitation exchanges in order to have someone else testify about any contentious incidents.
3. Look at Your Own Behavior– do not provide ammunition to your co-parent. Address any of your own alcohol, recreational drug or prescription drug abuse issues. Judges treat allegations of substance abuse seriously. They can order that you be randomly tested or evaluated. Act with self-control, too, because a parent with an anger management problem will be at a disadvantage against a parent who presents to the the judge as reasonable and mature.
4. Support Your Child’s Activities – such as sports practices, medical appointments, music lessons, religious activities, extra-curricular school activities and other social gatherings. Most importantly, keep track of all activities that you do with your child yourself. Know the names of your child’s teachers. Supervise your child’s play dates. Take your child to doctor appointments. Regularly attend school conferences and events.
5. Limit Social Media – never use it as a public forum for your custody dispute. Even if a post has been deleted, it exists somewhere in cyberspace. If you send emails or tweets ranting about your child’s other parent, or post indecent photos of yourself on Facebook, they will become part of the evidence used against you at your custody hearing.
6. Focus on Your Child – a child needs both parents. A parent who understands that will gain a lot of points with the court. Although your child is at the center of your custody dispute, a child should not be asked to decide between two competing parents. Do not give your child any messages to deliver to the other parent. Do not ask your child to keep secrets from the other parent. Do not question your child about the other parent’s friends. Do not encourage your child to challenge the authority of the other parent or to resist spending scheduled time with the other parent. Do not say anything that might reduce your child’s love or respect for the other. Do not make promises about where your child will live or offer rewards if he or she tells the judge which parent is preferred. Do not aim to be victorious over every small stipulation because you risk losing the larger battle. Finally, what you or your co-parent wants does not matter as much as what will work best for
Initiating or participating in an adversarial custody proceeding is an emotional time that requires strategic planning as well as a clear understanding of your options. It is critical that you seek out the advice of an experienced family law attorney who has handled contested custody trials before you make mistakes that could impact your future. For a contested custody case, when everything matters, contact Karen Hainer. Hainer Porras LLC welcomes the opportunity to consult with you. Visit www.hainerporras.com or call 703-596-0234 for a consultation.