Relationships are never easy, and when there are children involved things can get that much more tangled. If filing for custody of your children is on your mind, or if your ex-partner has begun the custody process, knowing what you can do (and what you should do) can help you prepare for what lies ahead.
Read on for several tips to keep in mind if you or your ex-partner is filing for custody.
Read Up On Child Custody Laws Within Your State
An important thing to remember in the child custody process is that family laws vary by state. "Some states have statutes that provide for shared custody as the baseline while others look towards the best interests of the child without an eye towards shared parenting," says Maryland-based family lawyer Christy Zlatkus. "As each jurisdiction is different, it is important to consult with a qualified family law attorney who can guide you as to the norms and laws in your own state or even county." On the other hand, "Once your ex has filed in Court, you have little choice but to respond and engage in the Court process once it has been started," Zlatkus adds.
And while it's natural for emotions to run high between you and your ex-S.O., what's best for the children and your relationship with them in the eyes of the court will be closely examined. In the province of Ontario, Canada, for example, "the court will examine evidence relating to a number of factors to determine whether or not you have the child's best interests in mind. These include factors like the personal and familial relationship between the person and child, the child's views and preferences, and permanence and stability of the family household where the child will live," says Olivia Koneval, a lawyer who practices family law in Canada.
Consider Hiring a Lawyer Who Specializes in Family Law
That said, experts recommend hiring a lawyer who specializes in family law to help gather documentation for and file the necessary paperwork and guide you through related questions about custody, including visitation and child support matters. If you already have a lawyer, contact your lawyer immediately and let them know what has happened. Send copies of the documentation you've received and schedule an appointment to review your options.
"Finding the right custody expert can be extremely important," says New Jersey-based family law attorney Melissa Fecak. "You want someone who is thorough and has prepared these types of reports to the court before and has testified in custody actions."
There will likely be a number of unfamiliar terms you'll face during the custody process, like understanding the difference between the types of custody at stake; legal and physical custody. Legal custody is the authority an individual has to make big time decisions on behalf of your children, such as where they go to school, what their religious upbringing might be, and certain medical decisions. Legal custody is also divided into sole custody, and joint legal custody––meaning, both parents have the legal authority to make major decisions for their children. For example, under joint custody, "A parent seeking to move out of state typically will need the court's permission for a move if either party does not agree to the move," says family lawyer David Reischer. On the other hand, physical custody references where children will live most of the time.
What to Ask Your Child Custody Lawyer
On the other hand, if you've been thinking about hiring a lawyer but haven't gotten around to it yet, take steps now to find one. One way to do this is to ask for referrals from your friends and family members. It may take a handful of appointments, but try to carve out some time to interview at least three different lawyers to find one that best suits your needs and circumstances.
During the interview, some helpful questions to ask your prospective child custody lawyer include questions about the types of cases they usually take on and which ones they're particularly passionate about. Other questions including asking your prospective lawyer about how much time they have available to dedicate to your case, what their payment terms are––including inquiring about hidden costs like filing and printing fees, and travel related to your case––and how and when information and updates will be communicated.
"As you work with your attorney, you can seek out-of-Court resolution options at the same time as
you litigate," says Zlatkus, who recommends exploring mediation, collaborative law, lawyer-to-lawyer
negotiation, or arbitration (enlisting a private, third party to settle a dispute).
Additionally, if you can't afford a lawyer for your custody case online resources like The American Bar Association, and the Legal Aid Society in your area provide information about free legal clinics in your area. In your research, be sure to contact your local area chapter.
Representing Yourself in a Custody Case
You can choose to handle custody cases Pro Se, meaning you will represent yourself without an attorney. Almost all courts have Pro Se help lines or legal aid offices onsite to assist individuals who do not have attorneys representing them. If you are filing for custody pro se, contact the clerk at your local family court and ask for all of the paperwork required to file for child custody without a lawyer, or find the information online. Depending on your state of residence, forms can be printed from your computer. Otherwise, you may need to go to the courthouse in-person for the paperwork.