Navigating a child custody hearing is one of the most intimidating things a parent can go through. Family court judges are often overburdened with an outrageous caseload, and an insufficient court staff, and no matter what decision the family court judge makes, one of the parties is generally unhappy (to put it mildly).
With all of this in mind, there a few ways you can avoid being one of those unhappy parties at the end of your child custody hearing.
1. File and serve complete and correct documents before your child custody hearing
Don’t assume the judge is able to just look at you and your co-parent and know which is the better parent, who is telling the truth, or more importantly, the facts of your case.
If you don’t provide the court with the facts and evidence to back up what you are telling him or her at your child custody hearing, the judge is left with only your word and the word of the opposing party. Again, the judge knows nothing about either of you or your child.
When you are drafting a Request for Order (RFO), a response, or any other document, include all relevant facts and information as well as any evidence you have to back it up (i.e. text messages, phone records, school records, pay stubs, deeds of title, etc.)
If there is an issue that you are going to bring up at the hearing, it should be in your pleadings so that the court and the other side have notice of it.
Everyone is entitled to notice and an opportunity to be heard on all issues the court is going to be making decisions about. It is not only important to file complete documentation with the court, but provide those documents to the other side ahead of time, and file a Proof of Service so the court knows the other side has received the documents.
If you have not filed a Proof of Service, the judge may not even read your documents because the hearing will likely be continued anyway and judges don’t waste time reading documents for cases that are not going forward.
2. Be respectful to the judge and the other side
Being respectful to the court is more than just adopting a certain tone of voice and refraining from cursing. It also has to do with your demeanor and appearance.
Showing up to court in torn jeans and flip flops tends to show the judge that you don’t respect the court, you don’t take any of this very seriously, and you don’t care about whatever the subject matter of the hearing is (i.e. your property or your child).
Rolling your eyes, scoffing, spinning in your chair, throwing up your hands, and slouching are all likewise disrespectful to the court. If you are in court trying to get more visitation time with your child, for example, this kind of behavior just shows the court you probably shouldn’t have it.
3. Listen to any questions you are asked carefully and only answer the question that is asked
During a child custody hearing, the judge or the opposing attorney or party may ask you questions about your child or your paperwork. Keep your answers succinct and ensure they answer the question you were asked.
“I don’t know” is a perfectly fine answer. If you do not know the answer to a question, it’s ok to say so. Don’t guess, speculate, or try to answer something because you feel like you have to. Because a child custody hearing is ‘on the record,’ you are under oath and everything you say is sworn testimony. You can also say something like, “I don’t know but my best estimate is x.” This allows you to provide an estimate without being held to anything specific.
4. Don’t interrupt the judge or opposing side
Allow the judge, opposing attorney, or opposing party to finish before you speak. Generally at a child custody hearing, the judge will speak first, the moving party (the party who filed the motion) will get to speak next, and then the responding party will have a turn.
Interrupting the judge or the other side is the fastest way to anger a judge. Everyone will have a chance to speak, there is no need to interrupt.
Many pro per litigants end up raising their hand in the air when they want to speak. This is not necessarily advisable, but if you find yourself unable to control your desire to interrupt any longer, raising your hand like a school child is still a preferable alternative to just interrupting.
5. Stay calm and collected
The judge or opposing counsel may ask questions that seem irrelevant or silly, but try not to appear annoyed by the questions or the process. Don’t be obnoxious or argumentative, even if the other side is making claims you know are false or speaking longer than you feel is fair. Losing your cool in court will only harm your custody case.
6. Listen to your attorney
If you went through the expense and trouble of finding a good child custody attorney, then listen to them when it counts. Let your attorney do the talking and arguing and only speak when the court speaks to you directly.
7. Tell the truth and don’t mislead the court
This one should go without saying, but tell the truth! Nothing ruins a case faster than exaggerating, misrepresenting, or otherwise telling an untruth. Perjury (giving false testimony) is not only a crime but will also likely destroy your case.
This does not necessarily just have to do with telling the judge an outright lie about a fact of the case, it has to do with offering misleading information and inflammatory arguments with no basis in fact (or law).
Many times, parties and attorneys will offer the court a kernel of truth, knowing that the kernel will lead the court to believe an untrue fact, intending to mislead the court.
Alert the court to contra legal authorities. You may get away with failing to do so once or twice, but after that your reputation with the court will be lost – either you didn’t do your homework, or you are trying to mislead the court for your own benefit.
Once a judge gets fixed on the idea that your information is untrustworthy, it will pervade the judge’s opinion of you throughout your case. If you goal is to “win” child custody, for example, your credibility is always important.
If your position in the case or a particular issue is weak, admit it, offer your best argument and facts that support your position, and move on. If you lie, the judge will not forget it, and family law attorneys absolutely love it when the other side lies to the court. We jump on the lie, using it to discredit everything you say and distract from any facts or evidence that is not helpful to our client’s case.
8. Address the judge during your child custody hearing, not the other side
Your child custody hearing is your opportunity to address the court, not your co-parent or their attorney. You could have, and generally should have, spoken with them before the hearing, so don’t waste your time and the court’s time talking to them when you have the judge sitting up there waiting to be addressed.
Don’t lean over to look at the other side, don’t point at the other side, don’t whisper to them, and don’t talk to them during your hearing.
9. Avoid using all-or-nothing language unless the situation warrants
Words like “always” or “never” are too definite and may lead to questioning of your credibility if the claims they support can be proven false. Saying something like “I don’t recall doing x” focuses on the present issue and preserves credibility. However, if your co-parent is accusing you of something extreme like physically abusing your child, responding with “I don’t recall doing x” is actually not appropriate. This kind of extreme allegation lends itself to an extreme response like “I absolutely have never done x.”
Contact a Knowledgeable Child Custody Attorney in California Today
If you have questions about how to prepare for an upcoming child custody hearing, you are not alone! The attorneys at Talkov Law have helped countless clients throughout the family law process. To speak with an experienced child custody attorney at Talkov Law, contact us online or by phone at (844) 4-TALKOV (825568)