I’ve talked mostly about co-parenting so far. But today, I want to give you some helpful (I hope you find it helpful) information on preparing for Family Court. Let’s say you’ve been served with divorce papers. Or, you get a petition to modify custody or access (anything that might change the parent/child relationship). Or, maybe you’re the one doing the filing. That’s okay. You still have to prepare as well.
Here are some of the things you’ll need to do:
- Hire an attorney.
- Make a commitment to keep your child(ren) out of the middle of any arguments the two of you may have and to refrain from speaking to them about court unless absolutely necessary and then in only the most general terms.
- Gather information to have in one place.
- Make sure you know where the courthouse is located and any parking issues.
Now, I want to go over these in a little more detail.
Do I really need an attorney? In my opinion — yes, absolutely. If you represent yourself, you’re too emotionally involved to see the big picture. Plus in most cases, you’re going to have to know the laws of evidence and procedure in order to get your evidence admitted into court. You’ll have to file your own legal paperwork, make sure all witnesses are subpoenaed and question the witnesses yourself. If you can’t figure out how to get your evidence admitted or how to ask questions correctly, you’ve lost the fight before you’ve ever had a chance. I’ve worked within the family court system for nearly twenty years providing expert testimony and I wouldn’t want to have to do this myself. There are just so many things that you don’t know that an attorney does.
You also need to understand those legal documents the other side will be filing and know what is expected of you. There are deadlines to meet and your own documents that must be filed in a timely manner. Believe me. Unless you have experience reading legalese, those documents can get very confusing and you’ll need an attorney to translate them for you. Sometimes it doesn’t even look like English. Oh the words might be English but they’re used in such a way that you’re wondering if you’ve suddenly forgotten how to read.
Why can’t my kids know what’s going on? I’m not saying they don’t need to know about the divorce or that mommy and daddy are trying to work out the best arrangements for them. BUT they do not need to know the circumstance behind the decision to file. Do you think it really helps them to hear that “Mommy is a two-bit ’ho who was sleeping with daddy’s best friend?” Or that “Daddy is the biggest a-hole on the planet? Of course not. Remember. You’re child is half of each of you. So if mommy’s a ‘ho and daddy’s an “a-hole” then you’re telling your child that he or she is basically a rotten person as neither half of them is any good. And you and I both know that’s not true. But it’s how your child will see it and internalize it. I’ve seen it happen way too many times.
Check out my previous post Respect: An Integral Element of Co-Parenting for some tips on getting along for the sake of your kids.
What kind of information do I need to have? I would suggest you get a notebook or a file box and put together a collection of items you might need. For me, a notebook with tabs would probably work best and be most mobile. You may work better a different way. But, basically what you’ll need to collect is anything that can help you in court, such as the following:
- List of all yours and your children’s doctors for at least the last five years (more if you or your child has a chronic medical condition that may affect custody and access). You’ll need full names, addresses and phone numbers as well as what each doctor treated you or your child for.
- Make a list of the same info for dentists, mental health professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, etc).
- List of medications you or your child currently take.
- List with same info for any child care providers for at least the past five years.
- List of all schools your child has attended. Again, full addresses and phone numbers. Teachers names and dates/grades attended. If you have documentation from the school for problems or (preferably no problems) for the past two years or so, you may want to make a tab/file with these so you’ll have them handy.
- Check stubs or income tax returns for at least the past two years.
- List of employers you’ve had for at least the past five years. Same info you gathered for the others.
- Your addresses for at least the past five years.
- If you rent, your current landlords’ contact information.
- A list of why you think you should have primary custody (if you really think you should). Try to make this list up without mentioning the other party’s faults. Base it solely on yourself.
- A list of reasons you think the other party should not have primary. Try to be as specific as possible. Generalities really don’t help your case much. If you have documentation of any kind that will help prove your case (letters from CPS, police reports, emails from teachers, medical/hospital records, phone records, etc.) put them in this file or behind this tab. Or if there are a lot you may want to make a tab/folder for each different type of documentation.
- You’ll probably want to keep a copy of all legal documents and orders in one place where you have easy access to them.
This list is not in order of importance. Nor is it a complete list of what might be important to your attorney, or what you might need while going through a social study or while you’re in court. Add whatever else you or your attorney thinks important.
Why should I bother finding out in advance where the courthouse is? I have gps. I’m sure many of you do. However, I’ve been lead astray by my gps before. Ended up in Deliverance country. NOT a good feeling. However, timeliness in court is very very, (did I say very?) important. If you’re late enough, the judge may think you’re not coming and the other party could get a default order. This basically means they get whatever they asked for. And if they asked for you to have supervised access only (or even none at all) then you’re stuck with that until you can get another hearing date and argue to have that changed.
If at all possible go during the week about the same time your first hearing is set for. This will help judge the traffic and time it takes to get there and get parked during your hearing. Make it a trial run. If you can’t go during the week, then at least go on the weekend to make sure you know where to go and what streets may be one-way.
Figure out where the parking lots or garages are. These are usually the best places to park. You pay a set fee and don’t have to keep worrying about your meter. Just because you’re set for a 9 am hearing DOES NOT mean your case will be heard then. In some courts, many cases are set at that same time and the judge works through them one by one. You may be there several hours. You may be there all day. Also be aware that in some downtown courts, the meters may expire within one or two hours AND you are not allowed to leave your vehicle there longer than that. You in fact have to move the car within that time frame or risk a ticket. If you’re in the middle of your own hearing, the judge is not going to stop and back up his or her docket just so you can do something with your car. All in all, you really may want to think about the parking lots and garages.
Give yourself extra time to get parked because invariably you’ll get someone in front of you who goes slow enough around the garage that they appear to be backing up. This especially happens when you’re late and in a hurry.
Give yourself plenty of time to walk to the courthouse from where you park.
Make sure you know where your attorney wants to meet you. You may be instructed to meet them in the courtroom or possibly even on a different floor.
Also, consider the fact that because the first number of a court starts with 2, does not mean it’s on the 2nd floor. So, it’s important you know where within the courthouse it is so you’re not stumbling around looking for it and end up being late after all your planning and preparation. How bad would it be for the other party to tell the judge how you’re always late for everything (i.e. getting your child to school/activities, child support payments, exchanges) only to have you show up late in court? Kind of hard to deny something the judge has seen for him or herself.
Now, the MOST important thing about all this information you’ve gathered? DO NOT LEAVE THIS WHERE YOUR CHILD CAN FIND IT. If you’ve basically been lax about leaving things around for your children to read and the court finds out about it; well, let’s just say, it won’t be pretty.
These are just a few tips for preparing your way for court. Ultimately follow your attorney’s advice.
Be prepared to try to settle your case. Most people do end up settling/mediating. In most cases, this is most definitely better for the children than a protracted court battle. And it’s less stressful in the long run on you, the parents.
*NOTE: Here’s my typical disclaimer for these posts–I am not an attorney. These opinions are mine alone and are based on my years of experience working within the family court system. They are not meant as legal advice nor as representative of anyone else’s opinion. If you need legal advice (and I believe if you’re involved in child custody litigation, you really do), please consult with an attorney.