As a practicing child custody attorney in Modesto California, I have handled literally hundreds of child custody cases, and I have seen what works and what doesn't work in child custody cases. I have created this list as a quick overview of thoughts and tips for people who are facing child custody battles.
Hope this list helps...
School: Make sure your kids have good school attendance, decent grades, and that you know who the teachers are. Education is given high priority in family court. Poor attendance and poor grades during your custodial time is a case killer.
Stay Close: If you have the option, don't move far away from you children and their school. A nice house somewhere else isn't worth losing the time with your kids. The closer you are, the more practical it is to take them to school, go to their activities, and do dinner visits etc. It always amazes me how people will move 30 miles away unnecessarily. The courts look at practical issues such as kids having to get up really early in the morning for school, or spending too much time traveling around in cars.
Enjoy Your Time: Remember the point in sharing custody of your kids is that your kids may have two parents who love them, guide them, and spend quality time with them. Don't waste your time fretting over the other parent. Focus on your kids during the time you have, and don't get sucked into drama while you have your them. Not all issues will be avoidable, especially if you have a completely unreasonable ex, but you can do your part to avoid try to avoid unnecessary conflicts. If you spend quality time with your kids, and you don't allow battles with the ex to occur around them, they will want to be with you, and you won't have to struggle with them to come see you.
Child Support: Child support is a real concern in California and it can be quite high under particular circumstances. However, I have seen people battle tooth and nail over a couple of hundred dollars. It's not worth it. You will spend unnecessary emotional energy and attorney's fees, and your kids will possibly suffer as well. Keep proper perspective when it comes to money, and keep in mind that when your kids are with you, you will spend more money on them. Fighting over every minute and every hour of custody, and hoping to save a couple bucks, will ultimately not be worth your time and energy. The court does consider custodial percentages when calculating child support, and you do want to have significant time with your kids, however, it isn't worth battling over minor differences in times. The support simply doesn't change as much as many people think when minor changes is custody times are made.
Health: Know who the doctor's are and be involved with medical care. Make sure your kids get a balanced diet. Obesity, dental problems, and poor hygiene are a reflection on you as a parent, and the courts do consider the health of your kids when determining who should have primary custody.
The New Boyfriend or Girlfriend: Don't bring the new significant other to your family law court hearings. This should be a no brainer but many people make this mistake. While you may be anxious to show off the new mate (or for some people, down right rub it in their ex's nose), it is really unwise to bring your new mate. Stirring up emotions doesn't help while negotiating your custody arrangement, not to mention child support. Resist the desire to get the emotional fix of getting back at the ex, or showing off the newby. Be smart and focus on getting the best possible settlement in your case.
Think clearly and logically when making decisions about custody of your kids. The new person in your life may be less than helpful with keeping the peace, and they may actually add to your problems. Talk to your new boyfriend or girlfriend, and decide together that you will both keep your heads about you, and work toward what is best for the kids and the overall situation. Keep the desires to fight, get back, and teach lessons under control. It's not worth the stress on you or your kids. The courts hate to see new people step into the picture to stir up the drama. It happens all the time in court. Don't be just one more person in court who makes a spectacle out of themselves. Remember judges and attorneys have seen it all, and it's very easy for them to spot people who are obviously trying to prove something or stir up strife. The new person you are with may grow to love your kids, but your kids already have parents. Support from another is great, but strife is not help. Get counseling with the new person if necessary.
Monitor but Don't Obsess: It's good to keep an eye on how your kids are doing and to document certain things. For example it would be important to document if your ex chronically shows up 30 minutes late or doesn't get the kids to school on time, or doesn't help with homework. However, it's not good to obsess over every little imperfection such as being 5 or 10 mins late occasionally, or over the ex showing irritation toward you, or the ex being rude every once in awhile. The list goes on and on, but the point is that if you obsess, you are wasting quality life and quality time with your kids. Life wasn't perfect when you were with the ex, and it certainly won't be perfect now that you are apart and sharing custody of kids. The court will look at the more important and relevant things that you may document, but over-the-top obsessing and the tracking of every little issue, could make you look foolish and petty, and may work against you in your custody case.
Reasonable Doesn't Mean Rollover: One of the most common questions clients ask me is “are you aggressive”? My response is, I am when it makes sense to be. It's almost always more effective to start off amicably, and with an eye toward reasonable compromise. Starting off with unreasonable demands and expectations will get you no where fast. I am not saying you should roll over and not stand up for yourself. In fact if the opposing party is the unreasonable one, it may be time to step up your game and push back by using the leverage you may have. It's no secret that not all people are rationale and reasonable, especially in family law cases, and it is common practice for my office to “fight back” legally. The key is to start off with making reasonable proposals but if that doesn't work out, then push back and assert yourself.
Protect Don't Alienate: I have seen it too many times where a parent seems to be looking to ‘beat out” the other parent rather than to be truly looking for what is best for the kids. It is absolutely wrong for a parent to do everything they can to prevent the other parent from having a relationship with their kids. Don't make up things and lie to prevent the other parent from seeing the kids. If you do this, you are only hurting your kids. It's one thing if your kids are in danger, or are suffering in some way, but it's a whole other thing to make up facts in order to accuse the other parent falsely to get the upper hand. You are not protecting your kids if there isn't a serious or real problem to start with. The court will begin to see if a parent is alienating the affections of the children against the other parent, and a parent who does alienate, may lose custody of the kids.
Violence: Domestic violence is a serious consideration in family court. If the relationship is bad with the ex, simply minimize the amount of contact you have with them and don't allow yourself to get drawn into unnecessary drama. You can't control every situation on your own, and you should use the court system rather than force and control to work out your custody disagreements. Know when to back off and keep your cool. You have a lifetime with your kids, and so be patient and allow the court system to work.
Drug Abuse: If you smoke pot, give it up for crying out loud. I will never understand how people can choose weed over their kids. Yes you may be an occasional user, or maybe you have a medical card, but it's just not worth it. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law and is still regulated in California as well.
Abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs are also a serious issue in family court. If the court finds that you are under the influence of alcohol, or even legally prescribed drugs while caring for your kids, you could lose substantial time with your kids, and you may find yourself going to treatment programs prior to having unsupervised custody time with your children.
Obviously illegal drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine will cause major problems in a child custody case. You can lose complete custody of your kids and you will do supervised visits at a facility with strangers. If you abuse drugs, it's time to kick them. Get professional help if necessary. You have to decide which is more important, your drug habit, or your kids. Breaking free from drugs is not an easy thing to do, but it really isn't a complicated decision. If there is anything that should motivate you to kick a drug habit, it should be the love for your children.
Text Messaging: Be very careful what you say in text messages. Text messages are admissible evidence in court and so messages with threats and harassment can come back to haunt you in a child custody case. Misunderstandings are also much more likely to occur in text messaging. Don't engage your ex in texting battles. Texting should be limited to simple communications such as information for exchange times with the kids, or times for meetings or doctor's appointments. Texting should not be used to try and resolve major disagreements. You will find yourself saying things in text messages that you shouldn't be saying.
Use Social Media Wisely: It amazes me how many people put all their personal information on Facebook and other social media. I have seen people talk about drug use, alcohol abuse, make threats, and you name it on Facebook. I also see people taunt each other on Facebook by talking about the new relationship or the new car or whatever. Do not do this. I don't know how many times the opposing party or my own clients have had to explain their Facebook posts. Keep your drama off the internet and don't taunt your ex. Why give them motivation and ammo against you.
On the other hand, if the ex is posting personal stuff on Facebook or other social media, and you think the information is important to your case, print it out with dates and times of the posts. However, don't stalk them on Facebook either. Just monitor without obsessing.
Talking to Kids About Court: Don't talk to your kids about court. The case isn't their burden. Do your best to protect your kids from the emotional impact of a custody battle. If you have an older child who is say 16, they are going to be more aware and may have more input with what happens, but with the younger kids, you have to protect them. Judges and mediators really dislike it when parents dump all their personal and legal problems on kids.
Court Mediators: It is mandatory in California to see a court mediator regarding custody of your kids when you can't agree. It is important to meet with your attorney to discuss the mediation process prior to actually going into mediation. Show restraint and impulse control while in mediation. If you can't control yourself in mediation, the mediator may see that you are immature, and that you may have a hard time controlling yourself in the outside world. It's tough to have a stranger make decisions about your kids, and it takes patience and maturity to deal with it properly. Remember, you are in mediation because you and the ex cannot agree, and therefore, the court has to intervene and help you work out a custody plan. If you can't agree, the mediator will make a recommendation. So keep your cool, and certainly do not pick a fight with the mediator who is a person who has a lot of power and influence over the outcome of your case.
Best Interest of the Kids: The legal standard in the family code measures what is in the best interest of the kids. While the court system isn't perfect, and while a fair result isn't always possible, the system is however designed to help you work toward ensuring that kids are safe, and that they can thrive in the care of one parent or both. If you work to avoid as many of the pitfalls as mentioned above as you can, you will do much better in court, and in the lives of your kids, and you will be looking out for what is best for them.
Conclusion: This list is not a comprehensive list but it does include many of the most common and important issues involved within a child custody case. I do realize that real life is more complicated than a simple list of do's and don'ts. Real life is real life and you can't control what the ex may do or not do, however, if you can consider what I have mentioned above and try to adjust your perspective and actions accordingly, I truly believe you will have an easier time coping with your child custody issues.
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