The battle to gain custody can be fierce, and while fathers are often put at a disadvantage, demonstrating that you are a positive influence for your child will go a long way. Additionally, knowing what guidelines your state uses to determine the best interests of a child and the sorts of behaviors judges pay particular attention to will also help you develop your case.
During a custody dispute, it becomes more important than ever to maintain a level head and to keep a clear focus on your goal: Achieving an equal share of parenting time with your child. Here are a few things to keep in mind while you are trying to negotiate your custody arrangement, and some ways to help prove you deserve to play an equal role in your child’s life.
What is “the best interest of a child?”
Many states have official guidelines they use when determining custody arrangements. For example, Pennsylvania statute 5328 lists at least 16 categories, ranging from “the parental duties performed by each party on behalf of the child” and “the availability of extended family,” to “any other relevant factor.” While there is even language included that specifically states gender should not be taken into account, it is still up to you to prove that it is in the best interest of the child to spend equal time with you.
You need to ask for custody
Don’t go in assuming that equal custody is a given. A good family law attorney will assuredly go over what sort of custody arrangement you think will work best before your first hearing; however, for those representing themselves, it can be easy to simply forget to ask. If you do not put in the request from the start, the hill you have to climb for equal custody just got a whole lot steeper.
Have a custody game plan ready to go
A judge will want to see that you have thought ahead and are prepared for the responsibility of taking care of your child on your own half of the time. You will need to prepare sleeping arrangements, a pick-up and drop-off schedule for school, your ex-wife and any extracurricular events, documentation of financial stability and any other relevant detail that will contribute to your child’s well-being. Going in to your initial hearing empty-handed and simply demanding equal time is a good way to have your request ignored.
Know the details of your child’s life
To prove that your child plays a prominent role in your life, you will need to know specific details about their life. Whether in a hearing or deposition, you should be able to recite your children’s teachers, their doctor, their favorite toy, who their best friend is, etc. These details may seem kind of silly or irrelevant, but many fathers do not know these sorts of things, which can be spun to make you look bad.
Make time to attend as many events as possible
It is more important than ever that you be there for the important occasions of your child’s life. If you blow off their elementary school band concert because you have to work late, this can be used as ammunition to show that your priorities aren’t in the right place for equal custody. It may take sacrifice, but it is essential that you are there for every little thing — be it birthdays, parent-teacher conferences or gymnastics practice. Taking an active role in your child’s interests and extracurricular activities helps to prove that are a positive, supportive figure for your child.
The little things count
Make sure that you are always available if your child wants to talk, needs help with homework, etc. If you don’t see your child every day, make sure you at least call to check in. Always be there to help with homework, offer rides, make yourself available to babysit, host sleepovers or birthdays — anything you can think of to make yourself an important part of their life. It is also useful to get to know your child’s teachers, coaches, friend’s parents or any other influential adult on a more personal level in case they are needed to verify the fact that you are a stand-up father.
Gather potential witnesses
Third-party testimony backing up your position as a great and supportive father will go a long way toward convincing a judge that you deserve an equal cut of the custody. A character witness, such as your child’s little league coach attesting to your positive encouragement and enthusiastic attendance of all games, can help to prove a devoted involvement in your child’s life. You can also go the route of hiring an expert witness, such as a psychologist, to give their professional opinion on what would be best for the child. Either can work to lend credibility to your case.
Demonstrate respect for your ex or soon-to-be ex-wife
Shared parenting requires much more communication and cooperation than the traditional custody arrangement. You will need to show that you can develop a working relationship with the mother of your child, which can be difficult during a highly contentious divorce. Keep a check on your anger, never yell and be on your best behavior when in front of the judge — despite how the outcome may end up. Also, realize that any negative out-of-courtroom behavior can be brought up and used against you, so keeping your cool around your children and ex is essential. Watch out for colorfully worded texts or emails, and know that anything said or done in anger might come back to haunt you later.
Understand that you may not obtain equal custody during your first attempt
You may have had factors that played against you, you may have gotten a traditionalist judge or you may have simply not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that equal custody is in your child’s best interest — either way, you’re out of luck the first time around. However, don’t let that discourage you! This is, unfortunately, a very common scenario. Keep your chin up because custody can be modified later, and if you continue to be a positive influence in your child’s life, you can eventually get that shared custody you deserve. It might take months, or even years, but it will never be achieved if you roll over and give up.
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series discussing the unfair laws that determine child custody and ways to strengthen your own custody case.