Psychologists warn against the human tendency to create “the other,” as in dehumanizing an opponent1. Perhaps the first and best piece of advice we can offer our male clients preparing for custody trials is to remember your opposition is the mother of your children. Any fight for your children begins with respecting yourself, your children, and your ex-wife.
1: Prepare to Prove Yourself
Your job in a custody trial is to prove to the court’s satisfaction that you are a worthy parent, and better at parenting than your ex-wife. This does not automatically mean tearing down your ex-wife until she resembles nothing her children would recognize. It means:
- Keep a daily calendar, journal or diary of the many ways you interact with your own children, showing your continual, heavy involvement in their lives
- Attend every school activity, church function, scout or club event you can; record your presence by collecting pictures, programs or video
- When attending events for your children, talk to their teachers, leaders and directors, and make the talks more than just chit-chat; ask questions that show your concern and support
- Take your child for medical appointments, get to know the office staff members, and never act as if a medical visit imposes on your time
- Encourage your child to join community activities; be the parent to take her or him to those activities; volunteer to coach the softball team, or at least keep score every game; help arrange the Scout dinner
Preparing for a custody hearing is not the time to be modest. Seek out as many witnesses as you can to testify (or offer deposition) that you are a conscientious dad and that you were there through thick or thin. This may mean calling on all those relatives, medical personnel, day-care workers, church leaders and Scout masters. Hard as this may be, this is the time to be brave and realize you are fighting for yourself and your children.
2: Prepare Your Children for the Road Ahead
Generally, Virginia courts will not rely heavily on the opinions of your children. To be heard, the child must first demonstrate an ability to form a valid opinion based on:
- Experience and age
Many judges will discount children’s opinions 12 and under, and be willing to at least hear evidence from a child older than 12. Rather than risk making an unwise decision, too, many judges will elicit professionals’ opinions, such as a court-appointed child psychologist or Guardian Ad Litem.
Since your children may feel excluded from the process, talk to them openly about the steps in a custody hearing. Expect confusion and tears. Several short conversations stretching over weeks is better than one, overwhelming monologue delivered just before the hearing.
3: You Versus She
Avoid the temptation to reduce your ex-wife to a collection of symptoms. Calling her names — sociopath, liar, witch, whatever you may say — may make you feel better, but it also lowers your guard. You come to view her as an unworthy opponent, instead of someone who needs to be taken seriously. Both of you are struggling to win custody of your children, the most precious and brightest results of the dissolved marriage.
If you claim she lies, gather evidence. If you say she is a bad mother, find proof. Try to be fair. Avoid stretching events to cast her in a negative light. Cross-examination or her own evidence could show you deliberately tried to make her look bad without grounds. No competent attorney is going to let your accusations stand without proof.
Reasonable areas to probe in finding reasons she is an unfit parent can include:
- Her overwhelming or irregular work schedule that makes normal interaction and activities with her children unlikely
- Her deliberate attempts to interfere with your visitation schedule, or to intrude on time with your own children
- Police records indicating she is a risk to herself or others, including your children, such as DWI/DUI charges in violation of Code of Virginia §18.2-266 to §18.2-271.4
- Convictions that resulted in jail time
- Medical records to which you are entitled under HIPAA showing she suffers from mental illness
- Witnesses who can attest to indications your ex-wife is violent, endangered your children, or threatened harm to anyone
- Behavior in front of your children that could be detrimental to their physical or mental hygiene, such as associating with casual partners, using drugs, or taking them into situations such as bars or clubs
4: Dot the Is and Cross the Ts
Preparing for your custody battle means more than just mentally bracing yourself. You have to gather your paperwork, be completely familiar with your existing court orders, and arrange your evidence. Organize everything so you can readily find any piece of evidence your attorney, or the judge, may need:
- Telephone logs
- Visitation schedules that include details as to where and when each of your visitations took place, which children (if you have more than one) were with you, and what you did
- Financial records indicating payments for spousal support, child support, and other child-centered expenses
- Printouts of emails and text messages
5: Call an Experienced Custody Lawyer for Fathers
The more closely you work with, and confide in, your attorney, the stronger your case for custody will be. Turn to The Firm for Men to prepare for your custody trial. Contact us online, or telephone (757) 383-9184 to schedule a consultation with an experienced attorney. You have a lot on your shoulders, but you also have a lot on the line: fight to keep your children close.