Ask any parent, and they’ll tell you that the number one thing that keeps them awake at night is worrying about their children. If you’re preparing for a child custody hearing because you and your former spouse could not come to your own agreement, you may be worried, afraid, and possibly even angry that the other parent took things to this level.
While no one can blame you for being in a heightened emotional state, making the effort to calmly prepare for a custody hearing can make a tremendous difference in the outcome. By working with your family law attorney to prepare a compelling case, you increase your chances of a custody arrangement that helps you achieve your goals.
Below is a list of 5 considerations that go into building a persuasive custody case.
- Learn how the hearing process works
If you’ve never been to court before, ask your family law attorney what to expect, so you can be prepared. Many parties find it helpful to go down to the courthouse before the day of trial, so you can find out where to park, see the actual courtroom, and get a sense of your physical surroundings for that day. If you are going to court for “temporary orders,” your case will be heard by a judge. Counties across Texas vary greatly in local rules and customs, and judges vary widely in their preferences. It’s important to get as much information as possible about who will be hearing your case, to the extent that you can. For example, some judges in the larger counties hear only family law matters, as opposed to others who hear all types of cases from criminal to general civil matters. Also, in some counties, you will appear before an associate judge on temporary orders hearing, while your final trial will be heard by either the district judge or a jury (Texas allows certain custody issues to be decided by a jury in the final trial).
Tabloids, celebrity divorces, and Courtroom TV are responsible for many misconceptions about what happens in the courtroom, so ask your lawyer about the process and what your expectations should be going in.
- Confirm what documents or other items you need to bring to court
Your attorney will help you determine which documents you need to bring to the custody hearing. These may include:
- Phone call logs and text messages confirming that you and your child are in regular contact.
- Photographs of you with your children.
- A journal or visitation schedule log that details how often you see the children and how much time you spend with them, or conversely, how often the other parent cancels or misses their time with the children.
- Proof of regular and timely child support payments.
- Medical records if your child has a diagnosed health condition, and you want to prove that they have access to regular treatment.
- Payment records for medical and other expenses that are relevant.
- School attendance and grade reports for the children, documentation of tutoring services, etc.
- Evidence of your support of the other parent’s possession time with the children to counter any claims of alienation.
The goal is to provide documentary evidence of your support of the children, how you provide emotional and physical support for your children, and, ideally, how you always put their best interests first. Judges base their decision on the best interests of the children, and you want to make it clear that they will always be supported, provided for, loved and protected with you. Also, it is very important that you be able to demonstrate how you support your children in having a positive relationship with the other parent.
Most courts have rules about what you cannot bring into the courthouse. You will most likely be going through a metal detector, so make sure you do not have any weapons. Also, some courthouses restrict people from bringing cameras, nail files, etc. Check with your lawyer to determine what items you need to leave in your car.
- Choose appropriate attire
Proper courtroom attire is essential. The judge doesn’t know you, and will form an initial opinion based on your appearance, so wear something that conveys the message that you are a responsible adult. Your appearance should be neat and clean. If you haven’t had a haircut in a while, this may be a good time to take a trip to the barbershop. If you have tattoos, it is generally wise to wear long sleeves and pants that cover your tattoos. Also, this is not the time to be flashing expensive jewelry or handbags. Generally, consider what you might wear to a friend’s funeral – attire that shows respect, and does not call attention to yourself.
- Keep your feelings in check
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by emotions of anger, hurt or frustration when you are in court, listening to the other party testify. Their perception is likely very different than yours, and it is not unusual to feel betrayed as you listen to their testimony. The worst thing you can do is to show a strong reaction. Work with your lawyer to practice staying calm and focused, and not getting distracted by the other side’s account of the history of your relationship. If you were able to agree on that history, you wouldn’t be in court! Talk with your lawyer and develop a strategy for how you should keep your lawyer informed during the testimony of other witnesses (for example, you may want to have post it notes or a legal pad, to pass your lawyer notes in a non-disruptive manner).
Remember, making a scene in court is counter-productive, and can hurt your case. Prepare to stay focused on your goals, which is a loving future with your children, and do not allow the other side to derail you.
- Have realistic expectations
While there are lots of unknown variables that make custody litigation risky, it is important to have realistic expectations about what the judge can and is likely to do. It is the role of your lawyer to be both your advocate, and your advisor. As your advocate, your lawyer will help you make the best use of your limited time in presenting the most relevant evidence to advance your case. As your advisor, your lawyer will educate you about the potential risks and rewards of going to court. Talk to your lawyer about how you can achieve the best outcomes in your case, and whether going to court is necessary and/or likely to yield the best results.
Related: Also read: How to prepare for Divorce Court
At Hargrave Family Law, we stand firmly with you throughout any child custody disputes. Like you, we care about your children’s happiness and welfare, and our goal is to help you build a bright and happy future for you and your children. For more information or to discuss your custody concerns, call us today at (214) 420-0100.