Of all the areas in which family law lawyers practice, custody is by far the most difficult. While that statement is true for obvious reasons, I often wonder what my clients are thinking when they do and say things over and over again that they know will not only jeopardize their standing in any future custody proceeding but more importantly, significantly harms the emotional well-being of their children. Most family law lawyers could write a hundred blog posts about the mistakes their clients make in contested custody matters but most of those posts would say the same thing and most of the information would be related to these five simple suggestions.
- Keep good records. I often refer to this as a “Custody Log.” We are all human and often once something significant happens, we believe that we will never forget the details, but that is naïve. Keep a detailed Custody Log because no one remembers everything and often times, custody trials are comprised of recitations of facts as perceived by the other party and the better the recollection, typically the better the testimony.
- Good communication. This suggestion seems obvious when you’re parenting a child in two separate households. If you communicate well, not only will your child be better off, but your life will be much less stressful. However, time and again clients refuse to communicate appropriately. I often suggest to my clients that communication should be via email and that each communication should be written as if he or she is sending an email to a professional coworker. This will allow you to communicate in a civil, respectful, and non-emotional way and typically allows you to convey the facts necessary without adding extraneous and often derogatory information.
- Don’t bad-mouth the other parent to your children. So many clients set out to gain an edge in custody by attempting to manipulate their children by persuading them that the other parent is bad in some way. Even if the information being provided is true, the emotional ramifications of doing this to a child, regardless of their age, are significant. In some cases, such manipulation even backfires and instead of a child having a negative impression of the other parent, the child becomes defensive and ignores even valid things that a bad-mouthing parent suggests. In other cases, the bad-mouthing is effective for a period of time and a child may even be alienated from the other parent. However, most children eventually learn what they live and the bad-mouthing parent’s comments are acknowledged as untrustworthy and inaccurate. In these cases, the bad-mouthing leads the child to further bond with the other parent because the child can no longer trust or believe what the bad-mouthing parent says or does.
- Social media should not be your sounding board and don’t count on privacy. Many clients believe that social media is a great place to bad-mouth the other parent, complain about their circumstances, or to manipulate the facts and circumstances of their current situation. Many social media posts are not truly private and if you post it, I may find it. There is nothing more ironic or satisfying when cross-examining a parent who has spent hours testifying about how he or she is so concerned about the other parent’s behavior, whether it be drinking too much, going out too much, having multiple intimate partners, etc. only to then cross-examine that parent with the voluminous posts and pictures of the parent doing the exact thing that they are complaining that the other parent does. Remember that many things that you post on any social media outlet are discoverable: even if you have deleted things or taken an account down completely, those accounts could still exist somewhere and often times your “friends” have printed out your ridiculousness and shared it with me.
- Grow up. If you are old enough to have a child, then don’t act like one. Your child’s emotional well-being is not something to play with and in the end, no one is the winner. But there is definitely a loser and that loser is your child. Having a child participate in custody litigation or even without that, to grow during his or her formative years with parents that cannot behave like adults, communicate respectfully, or enjoy the time that they have with their child is extremely detrimental. Regardless of your feelings towards the other parent, you can always conduct yourself appropriately, be courteous, be respectful, and be reasonable. Children grow up and when they do, they will remember the parent who behaved like an adult and the parent who did not. Children of divorced families who had parents who behaved like adults and acted reasonably grow up mostly unaffected by separate homes. However, children that grow up seeing the opposite often have relationship problems of their own, higher rates of drug and alcohol use, mental health issues, and are generally less happy.
This is not brain surgery or rocket science. These tips are not new and I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Still, parents often are unable to remember simple ways in which to behave that not only positions them better in custody proceedings, but can actually minimize their stress and allow their entire family a more peaceful life. Most importantly, their child can live in a less contentious world where his or her parent puts their child’s needs ahead of their own. Isn’t that what parenting is all about?