Child custody disputes can be incredibly difficult and draining for parents. Over the 20 years I've spent working as a family lawyer, this tends to be one of the hardest situations.
However, there are ways to make the process easier and more seamless. I tend to see the same mistakes made time and time again so I will share my dos and don'ts for parents going through the process.
These tips will help ensure that parents are more child-focused and help remove the stress and emotions from their behaviour and actions which can impact the outcome of the case drastically.
1. Don't use your child as a pawn
Do not withhold your child from the other party to score points. Do not send messages (particularly nasty ones) through your child, to the other parent. This is an absolute no-no to a court, it will make you look really bad, so just don't do it.
2. Do not include children in adult Issues
Let them be children. Don't include them in adult issues, it will have long lasting damage on the children into their adulthood and will also destroy your case if you end up in a family court.
3. Do not cut off communication with the other parent
The child has a right to a relationship with both parents unless there is risk of harm. If you deliberately withhold time from that other parent or stop communication with the other parent and you child, the court will see you as an unsupportive parent that doesn't want to foster a relationship between the child and other parent.
4. Don't insult the other parent
The amount of mudslinging that people do is not healthy and is especially not healthy for your child. If you're insulting the other parent there's a possibility you're doing it in front of the child, which is a big no-no. The child doesn't want to hear that mum's a bitch and dad's a bastard. Do not insult the other parent by email or text message either, or the first evidence that goes into court will be the email where you have just been insulting the other parent.
5. Do be honest about drug use
If you are doing drugs, stop, go out and get assistance for it straightaway. Rehab, drug rehab, counselling, or anything that will help you stop the dangerous habit. Be honest and acknowledge that you've had a drug issue and show that you've actually changed your behaviour. You will have more credibility if you are honest about your flaws.
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6. Do make decisions in the best interest of the child
If you're making decisions that actually promote your benefit as opposed to the child, you're actually doing far more damage for both the child and your case before the court. What I recommend is, ask yourself before you do anything that relates to the child, is this truly in the best interest of my child?
If the answer is yes, then do it. If the answer is no, don't do it. If the answer is maybe, don't do it.
7. Do try to resolve your matter before you get to the court
Mediation is the process you go through before you can start court, when you're negotiating the children's issues and parenting. The biggest mistake that people make is they put their ego before the child's needs and they don't actually work very hard to come to an agreement for your children.
The moment you step foot into a family court system, you are going to be spending over a year, possibly up to 3 to 5 years. You will be dragging your children through that process, and you're also going to be out of pocket a lot of money that you can't actually put towards your children. If you can resolve it, please do so.
8. Do prepare for the court process and court specialists
When a family report is being written (where a social worker actually examines your relationship as a parent or co-parent) you need to prepare for the questions that are going to be asked of you. When you're talking to the specialist, do not divulge everything like its a personal therapy session. They are there to assess you, not assist you. Often people say, "Let me tell you all the horrible things about the other parent and why they're so bad."
Don't do this! Make sure that you speak succinctly, genuinely, and without insulting the other parent.
9. Don't prep your child on what to say
Do not tell your child, "When you talk to the expert, tell them you want to be with mummy because mummy is amazing and daddy is a bully. It's very important because that family report is going to be the key to your entire matter, it's the one piece of evidence that the court will rely on more than anything else, more than affidavits, more than witnesses. Your child should be organic and authentic in their interaction with any court specialist and most of the time it is obvious when a child is coerced into saying something that the parent wants.
10. Do not split up the children
At this challenging time for children, the continuity and certainty comes from siblings. One of the things courts will try to do is keep children together. So, if you are thinking about splitting up the kids because it is convenient for you, remember it is not about you, it is about what is best for your children.
Hopefully these tips will be helpful about what to do and not do when you are going through your own child custody matter. They should help you to make better decisions which should always be in the best interest of your children.
Tracey McMillan is the founder of No Lawyers and CEO of Forge Legal. She has been a Family Lawyer, Mediator and Parent Co-ordinator for over 20 years.
About No Lawyers: No Lawyers is a new digital family law platform, created to help people save thousands in legal fees when going through a separation and custody battle. The platform assists separated parents negotiate parenting agreements without the burden of excessive legal fees.