Custody is one of the most emotionally and legally difficult issues to resolve in a divorce or breakup, even an amicable one. When custody is contested, the process is even more challenging for everyone involved—especially the children. We are often asked how to win a court case for child custody, and the honest answer is not to be involved in one. This is because conflict between the parents is one of the important predictive factors for how well children will fare after the divorce. Whenever possible, it is best to resolve a child custody case by agreement, through mediation or another form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) if necessary. Sometimes, however, this is simply impossible, and trial is required.
If you and your spouse or co-parent can’t reach an agreement outside of court, child custody will be decided by a judge. “Having your day in court” might sound desirable, but the reality is that no judge can know your children and their needs as well as you do. By letting a judge decide custody, you are placing power over your children’s lives (and yours) in someone else’s hands. When there is no other choice, it is important to help the judge make the best decision.
Child custody litigation is based on “the best interest of the child.” Parents matter, but their needs are not paramount; the judge is primarily concerned with what custody arrangement will be best for the children. That is decided through an analysis of the best interest factors in Maryland law.
To the extent that it is possible to “win” a child custody case, it is done by persuading the judge that the list of factors they must consider favors you. In other words, you need to demonstrate to the court that you are the type of parent who can provide a safe, stable, and supportive environment for your children—a place where they are nurtured and their needs are met—including their need to have a relationship with their other parent, in most cases. That can be a real challenge when you are locked in conflict with your co-parent. Here are some steps you can take to show the court that you are the parent your child needs you to be.
If you have reached the point where your child’s custody is being decided in court, your priority is to show the judge that you are not only a fit parent, but one who is actively involved in your child’s life. You may not have been a perfect parent in the past (no one is), but you need to show that you are a good and responsible parent now, and that you will continue to be. The earlier you can show a pattern of being a responsible, engaged parent, the more it will benefit you.
Being an engaged parent means that you can meet your child’s needs without having to be guided or directed by the other parent. You know who your child’s teacher and doctor are, and you know when parent-teacher conferences and medical appointments are scheduled. Your child turns to you for comfort when they are hurt or sad. You know your child’s favorite foods and best friends. You take them to sports practices, music lessons, and playdates; you get them there and pick them up on time. In short, if you don’t want a judge to treat you like a visitor in your child’s life, don’t act like one.
And part of being responsible is being willing to pay for the things your children need, including child support to the other parent, without being forced to do so by a court. A good family law attorney can help you understand what this means in real terms.
As every parent knows, parenting is filled with curveballs: sick children need to be picked up from school, soccer practice gets rescheduled, someone misses the bus and needs a ride to school. When these things happen, don’t assume that it’s the other parent’s job to deal with them. Rearranging your own schedule to meet your child’s unexpected needs shows your commitment to putting them first.
Part of acting in your child’s best interests is demonstrating the ability to lay aside your conflict with your spouse or partner to put your child’s needs first. That is easier said than done, and most people benefit from a therapist’s help during a child custody case to work through painful emotions and be able to be fully engaged parents.
You may be really angry at the other parent; you may feel hurt or betrayed by them. You may want to punish them by showing the world in court what a bad parent they are. But it is much more important to show the court that you are a good parent than to show that the other parent is a bad parent.
In general, it is important for children to have a strong relationship with both parents. Showing the court that you are willing to foster a positive relationship between your child and the other parent and their family shows your commitment to doing what’s best for your child.
Of course, there are situations in which the other parent is genuinely unfit to have the care of your child, such as when they are abusive or neglectful. If that is your concern, document specifics and discuss the issue with your attorney as soon as possible.
Being a responsible citizen is part of being a good parent; it’s harder to argue that you should have custody of your children if you have criminal charges against you or engage in activity that could harm them, such as getting speeding tickets (or worse, a DUI) while they are in the car with you. Similarly, leaving them alone when they are too young or immature to care for themselves - or worse, younger siblings - is a bad idea.
We’ve all heard stories of children who were abused, neglected, or worse, by a parent’s romantic partner or a family friend. You might like to think that couldn’t happen to your child, but it’s your responsibility to make sure. As the saying goes, you are known by the company you keep. Don’t give your spouse or partner ammunition in this regard during a custody dispute. Giving people with a history of substance abuse, sexual offenses, or criminal background access to your children suggests that you have poor judgment and are not prioritizing their well-being, and your co-parent will use that against you.
Similarly, do not have romantic partners stay at your home while your children are there; even if they do not pose a risk of harm to your children, it could make them feel as if they are not your first priority. Avoid hosting inappropriate parties, or even having a friend crash on your couch—anything that could make your home look unsafe or unstable.
Last but not least, make sure any babysitters you use are vetted. Never leave your child in the care of someone you do not know well and trust completely.
Homes with children can be messy and chaotic at times. But you want to maintain a home environment that is generally clean and safe, especially if there is the possibility of a custody evaluator making an unplanned visit. If there are guns, medicines, alcohol, or other potentially dangerous items, make sure they are secured well out of your children’s reach. If you have small children, make sure the home is childproofed.
Your home doesn’t have to look like it’s fresh out of a Mr. Clean commercial, but it should be sanitary and neat. Hiring a house cleaner if possible not only keeps your home environment appropriately clean, but gives you an assist at a stressful time.
Prevailing in a custody case doesn’t mean that you have to be someone you’re not; it means showing the court your best self. Your choice of attorney is an essential part of successful child custody litigation. To learn more about litigating a child custody case or to schedule a consultation, contact Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to schedule a consultation.