Going through a divorce is difficult under the best of circumstances. When children are involved, it becomes even more difficult — emotionally, financially and logistically.
Being a part of your child’s life is irreplaceable. That’s why fighting for custody of your child or children is so important. There are things that you can do before and during the court case to increase your chances of getting the outcome you want. The most important thing to keep in mind is that a judge’s number one priority in a California custody case is to determine what is in the best interest of the children. Your job is to show that you are a loving, responsible, and stable parent and that you can offer a safe and supportive home for your children. Use the 25 tips below to make the best case possible in your California child custody battle:
Show Responsibility and Engagement
While you cannot change any of your behaviors from the past, you can start right now to begin positioning yourself as a responsible and engaged parent. Ideally, you want to do this long before your child custody case so that you can show a positive pattern of behavior. You may still be struggling with feelings of anger, betrayal, and bewilderment after separating or divorcing your partner. It is important to work through these emotions, (perhaps with the help of a professional therapist), but you must also be able to set aside your own struggles to be a good parent for your children, especially now!
- Spend as much time as possible with your children
Utilize all of your custodial time to show that you want to spend time with them. If you skip appointments, you may come off as an uninterested parent. Try to avoid leaving your children with your family or in daycare unless absolutely necessary.
- Be dependable
Pick your children up on time for your custody sessions, appointments, school, sports practice, etc. Show that you are a responsible and reliable person.
- Be flexible
Did you get a call from school saying that your child is sick and needs to go home? Or did the baseball coach require an extra weekend practice? If possible, rearrange your schedule to accommodate your children. This will show that you have the flexibility and willingness to deal with life’s surprises.
- Keep a clean personal and driving history
This should go without saying, but you want to avoid anything that can show a major character deficiency, like an arrest. Even things like a speeding ticket can be used against you, so keep your criminal record and driving record clean, even if that means driving in the slow lane!
- Keep detailed notes
You’ll want to be able to show that you are a responsible parent, so keep notes on thing like when you and your ex-partner each have custody of the children. You can include things like what you did with your children, who was present, etc. You’ll also want to note every time you pay child support or receive child support. If you are required to pay child support (even if you don’t believe that it is fair) make sure that you make every single payment on time, unless you can show an excellent reason why you missed a payment.
Create a Safe and Wholesome Home Life for Your Children
The judge in your California child custody case will want to see that you can offer your children a safe and supportive environment. On the flip side of the coin, your ex-partner may try to seek advantage for his/her case by accusing you of creating an unsafe environment. Though some of our tips may sound a little extreme, you must do everything in your power not to give your ex anything that he/she can use against you, no matter how silly it may seem.
- Vet your inner circle
Make sure that you do not let anyone around your children who can be deemed dangerous, including anyone with a felony or sexual-related offenses, drug users, or drug dealers. Even if your uncle was convicted of a drug crime 20 years ago, it is better to ask him to give you some space for the time being. It’s also a bad idea to invite a new partner to live with you or stay overnight right after your separation. This could upset your children. If you have been separated for a while (at least six months), it is more reasonable to introduce your children to a new long term partner in your life.
- Drive safely
When your children are in the car, make sure they wear their seat belts and use car seats whenever necessary. While you don’t want to get a speeding ticket or other ticket at any time (see #4), you especially don’t want to get one while your children are in the car with you!
- Keep your home safe
If you have young children, ensure that you appropriately childproof your house. If you keep weapons in the house, especially handguns, keep them locked away. It is better to keep them out of the house altogether unless you need them for your job. Be aware that dangers lurk in many places. Young children can think packets of laundry detergent look like candy, and older children may be curious about trying alcohol or prescription medicine you keep around. It goes without saying that you should never keep illegal drugs in your home, especially when your children are present!
- Keep your home clean
A little clutter in the house is to be expected (especially with children underfoot), but make sure your home is sanitary and is a safe, comfortable place to live. If your home could be featured on the show Hoarders, it’s time for some major cleaning!
- Inappropriate gatherings
Be careful about whom you invite over and what you do with guests. Leaving your young kids alone for hours while you spend quality time with your new boyfriend or girlfriend isn’t appropriate. Neither is letting everyone and their neighbor wander through your house or letting friends-of-a-friend crash on your couch. Large parties, especially when lots of alcohol and illegal drugs are present are a very bad idea. Remember, your children are absorbing everything they see and hear!
- Sexual appropriateness
No matter how innocent your intentions, even the appearance of impropriety can be used against you. Do not do anything that can potentially interpreted as sexually inappropriate, such as letting your children sleep in your bed, bathing with your children, or being naked around your children.
- Inappropriate outings
If you have adult interests, do them when you do not have custody of your children, or hire a babysitter for the night. Do not bring your children to dive bars, to rock concerts, or R rated movies just because you want to go.
- Appropriate babysitters
Speaking of babysitters, ensure that you only hire an experienced, qualified babysitter to care for your children. Do a full background check or use an agency. Do not leave your children with anyone who would not pass a background check (i.e. anyone with a criminal record, who does drugs, etc.), even if it is a family member.
- No corporeal punishment
Even if you’ve spanked your children for bad behavior in the past, that must stop. Do not engage in any physical punishment of your children. You should also avoid berating or harshly criticizing your children no matter how mad you get. Emotional abuse is just as bad as physical abuse.
Demonstrate Good Overall Character
When you go to trial to fight for custody of your children in California, you will be able to call up character witnesses. It is best to showcase your good character as much as possible before your case.
- Get to know the adults if your children’s lives
Meet with their teachers during parent-teacher conferences. Go to their sports games and school plays and the PTA meetings. Let these people see you being a good parent. They may be able to serve as witnesses for you in the future.
- Do not fight in public with your ex
It is never a good idea to publicly fight with your ex or with your children for that matter. Do your best not to lose your temper in public or show emotionally volatility. It’s understandable that you may be feeling a little “raw” with everything that’s happening, but for the sake of your children, try to avoid unleashing these emotions in public. Instead, use your closest friends, family members, or a therapist to work through your feelings in a healthy way.
- Do not disparage your ex
Though you may be tempted, avoid criticizing your ex-partner, their new partner, or their family in public, on social media, or in front of your children. Again, these are things you can say to your closest friends and family members if/when you need to.
Preparing for Your California Custody Case
As your custody hearing grows near, you’ll need to work closely with your divorce attorney to put your best case forward. Hopefully, you’ve been following the previous tips and already have a strong foundation to work with!
- Tell your attorney everything
The first and most important part of your trial strategy is to be completely honest with your divorce attorney. This means telling him/her if you’ve ever made any personal/parenting mistakes. It’s tempting not to admit to these things, especially if you feel ashamed, but you can bet that your ex won’t have any problem bringing up your previous bad behavior. Telling your attorney everything means that he/she can plan and prepare for it and add useful context. Lying will only hurt your case and your chances of getting the custody arrangement you want.
- Put together your witness list
Work with your attorney to develop a list of reliable and trustworthy witnesses. If you can find people like a child’s teacher, sports coach, your minister, or someone else in a professional position, that will be even better. Make sure you have their correct contact info.
- Do not put your children in a difficult position
In most cases, your children will not be asked to testify. This is especially true for younger children. It won’t do you any good to ask your children whom they would rather live with or to do anything to try and convince them that they should ask to live with you. Pressuring your children like this may actually hurt your case. (Remember, it’s not about what your children want, but what a judge thinks is in their best interest.)
- You can’t use heresy
In court, your lawyer will have the opportunity to present reasons why your ex might not be the best custodial parent. You can testify if you have witnessed your ex’s negative actions or behaviors (ex. criticizing the children). However, you cannot submit heresy, which is when someone else tells you about something they saw. So, if your children claim that your ex left them alone overnight, you cannot use this unless you can find someone who witnessed this behavior, or if you bring your children to a therapist and they tell the therapist. The therapist can then testify to what the children said.
- Don’t be overly friendly with witnesses
Character witnesses are supposed to at least present the appearance of being unbiased. Avoid showing too much friendliness toward them, like driving with them to courthouse or hugging them in front of the judge. Family members are the exception to this rule.
- Show empathy for your children
As much as you want custody of your children, you must be able to show that you care more about their best interests. This case is about them, not you. Show the court that you care about their needs and about giving them the best life possible.
- Don’t lie during the case
Everyone wants to pretend that they are the best parent in the world, but we all make mistakes and we all have different parenting styles. No matter how tempting, do not lie in court. For example, if you let your young children watch a PG-13 movie or got a speeding ticket while they were in the car, admit it. If you lie and then a witness contradicts you later, you will look much worse than if you had answered truthfully and then provided context.
- Focus on what’s changed
If you are fighting to change your existing custody arrangement, then you’ll need to focus only on what’s changed since the original hearing. If your ex has shown negligent behavior, or if you have gotten a job, a new home, and can now offer a more stable environment for your children, these would all be worth showcasing.
We hope that these 25 tips for preparing for your California child custody case have been helpful. Of course, every child custody case is different and the best strategy will be tailored to your unique situation. Consider consulting with a California divorce attorney as early as possible to receive personalized advice on how to prepare for your custody case.