Child custody issues are some of the most difficult to deal with no matter the marital status of the parents. The High Swartz Domestic Relations team knows that every case is different, and the people involved in these cases may feel vulnerable and overwhelmed. Each of us has focused our practice on Family Law and Domestic Relations because we, each for our own reasons, felt the need to pay attention to the more personal and human side of law. We don’t work on cases, we work with people.
When custody is part of a divorce or just the amicable split of an unmarried couple, most parties hope the child custody arrangements can be agreed upon quickly and amicably. Unfortunately, child custody can become contentious. In the event that custody has to be decided by a judge or arbitrator, you can help your own position by following these tips.
- Don’t badmouth your ex out of anger.
Verbally airing your grievances with the other parent may be emotionally satisfying in the moment, but ultimately, it has the potential to be very damaging if it’s not for the safety of the children. Unpleasant sentiments about your ex are particularly damaging when they’re said within earshot of your children – that’s still their father or mother who you’re talking about, and they may remember the worst of your outbursts for a very long time. In addition, these feelings have an uncanny knack for finding their way back to their subject. Particularly extreme ideas, even if they were said in the heat of anger or pain and not intended to be taken seriously, can be taken out of context, with potentially dire consequences for child custody.
- Ditch social media.
Or, at the very least, start thinking very carefully about what information you share on social media and who can see it. Even if you’re no longer “friends” with the other parent on Facebook, Snapchat, or other platforms, others who know them might be willing to share your social media activity with them. Even if the information that reaches them seems harmless, it’s easier than many realize to take social media posts out of context and use them to put their author in a bad light – in front of friends, family, and oftentimes family court judges.
- Document, document, document everything.
Keep a diary or calendar of any communications, events, incidents, or even confrontations with the other parent, particularly if they involve the children or their schedule. In a contentious custody dispute, it’s difficult to know ahead of time what information might be relevant to a domestic relations office or a family court judge.
- Encourage your child(ren) to have a relationship with the other parent.
One of the most unfortunate choices that one or both parents can make is to attempt to place the children in the impossible role of arbitrating the custody dispute. This happens when one or both parents asks the children effectively to choose sides in the split by pressuring them to express a preference for one parent or a dislike for the other. There are reams of psychological information on how damaging this is to a child’s sense of familial belonging, but it also has the effect of making the custody dispute an order of magnitude more adversarial. Please encourage your children, through words and actions, to have a relationship with both parents. Clearly, there are exceptions to this guidance, particularly in cases where the other parent may have committed abuse. In these situations, consult with your attorney about the options which may include supervised visitation.
- Develop a custody schedule. Be specific.
The custody schedule should spell out the days, times and locations of when and where the children will transfer from the custody of one parent to the other. At a minimum, in addition to the routine custody transfers, there should be language that covers major holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and the coordination of vacation travel with the custody schedule.
- Specific doesn’t mean rigid.
Well done – you’ve worked out a custody schedule with your ex. Now that you have, though, be flexible. The schedule should be a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. Life is often chaotic and unpredictable. Work schedules change on short notice. Cars break down. Illness strikes. When your ex asks you to make an adjustment to the schedule, look for reasons to accommodate rather than to obstruct. When something unexpected happens to you, you might need them to be flexible. Laying the foundations for practical cooperation in the early stages of your child custody arrangements will help the entire family’s relationships over the long run.
- Support family traditions (even if they’re not your own).
As mentioned, trying to enlist your children’s support in your side of a custody dispute is a no-no (see #4). That said, ensuring that they’re comfortable and happy in your home will help your case in the view of any third parties examining the child custody question. One of the best ways to do this is by ensuring the continuity of any family-specific routines to which the children have become accustomed. If the other parent read them a story or sang them a song at bedtime, it’s time for you to pick up the routine. The same goes for any practices or traditions associated with birthdays, holidays, religious observances, etc.
- Welcome new traditions.
Even as you’re working to preserve the routines and traditions to which your children have become accustomed, it’s important to create a new and different family unit from what came before. It is possible – and encouraged – to celebrate that unity without disparaging the past. Create new traditions and routines that help your children develop a sense of identity around the home they share with you.
- Give your child an outlet outside of home.
The division of your marital home can affect your children profoundly, even if they appear to be “doing fine.” Seek information and support to assist your children in coping with separation and divorce. Many children, however, will not be completely comfortable discussing all their feelings with either of their newly separated parents. Try to ensure that they have another trusted adult who they can talk to. This may be a grandparent, a family friend, a teacher, a coach, or a paid counselor.
- Families can survive the end of their parents’ relationship.
Even when there are disputes over the specifics of child custody, it’s the fortunate truth that most parents have a genuine, heartfelt interest in the well-being of their children. Used as a basis for common ground, rather than rivalry, a sound and sustainable child custody agreement can help a divided family maintain a modified form of unity that will provide the children with a sense of security and stability until adulthood and beyond.
When parents split, they don’t need to drag their children through the mud along with them. If you are part of a custody dispute, remember to put your children first by setting the best parental example possible. And know this, family courts are very intolerant of selfish antics.
Each child custody dispute is different, and the facts in every case are unique to the family involved. We work closely with you in order to help you identify and articulate your objectives, develop a sound understanding of your rights and obligations under the law, and execute the legal strategy that is right for your goals and circumstances.
If you have any questions about child custody, please contact Melissa Boyd, at 610-275-0700 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or one of our experienced Family Law attorneys in Bucks or Montgomery Counties.
The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances. The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.
This article was originally printed in the digital issue of MontCo Today and the December issue of the Sisters U.