Custody problems can really make you sad.
If you're reading this, you're probably in the middle of a nasty custody fight. Most likely, your case is going nowhere (or getting worse!) and you don't know why. You need answers! Why are things taking SO LONG?
Custody cases are the most common type of matter a family law attorney will get – and usually the biggest headaches. Emotions run high on both sides when a couple splits up – and when custody becomes an issue, look out! Let's face it, sometimes people are crappy to each other, particularly when angry and hurt. When that crap spills onto your kids, things go downhill really fast, especially if the court has to get involved.
If your custody case has been going on for more than a few weeks, you've already figured out that your judge has some strong ideas about what things they consider a problem (or don't), no matter what you think about it. Some things the judge may be telling you are problems, you just don't see what all the fuss is about. Well, my friend, I'm here to give you the unvarnished truth that most other law blogs won't tell you on this topic – and you probably aren't going to like what I have to say!
Here's the secret to most of the problems in your custody case: YOU'RE probably the problem.
“What?? ME??” When I say "you're the problem", I don't mean that you're the ONLY problem. Your ex is no doubt also causing problems in your case. It means that you don't have any control over what your ex chooses to do or not do. There are ways to hold them accountable in court, but ultimately, they're going to do what they're going to do. And if all you focus on is what your ex is doing, you're missing the real key to the problem.
What you do have control over is you: your behavior, your reactions, your words, your actions. When you take the position that your ex is the bad guy and you're blameless, you're going to have problems because NOBODY involved in a custody case is perfect. You're human. You aren't a perfect person, perfect spouse, or perfect parent. You made mistakes or bad decisions or used bad judgment at times. Everyone does at one time or another. It's the refusal to admit this fact that causes the biggest problems in a custody case for someone, hands down.
I get it, nobody likes to admit they screwed up or aren't perfect. We want to be the hero of our own story. But refusing to admit where you have flaws and problems doesn't make you a hero. It makes you a stubborn fool who isn't going to be happy with the outcome of their custody case.
You can fix this (or at least improve it immensely). I'm here to tell you how. Here are the top ways people sabotage their cases – and how to get your case back on track.
How You May Be Sabotaging Yourself In Your Custody Case
You're your own worst enemy sometimes….
Problem #1: You Have Totally Unrealistic Expectations
People in custody battles tend to come in with certain ideas of what the outcome of their case should be. If I had a nickel for every time a client told me "My ex needs to be held accountable!" or "I should have sole custody and they should only have supervised visitation!", I'd be retired on a tropical island somewhere.
Let me go ahead and burst your bubble: unless there's a major problem that makes your ex unfit to care for your children, the court isn't going to say they can't see your kids. And your chances of holding your ex “accountable” for [insert complaint] probably isn't ever going to happen the way you want it to.
Define “Unfit” to Have Custody
Here's a list of things a court considers serious enough to limit or suspend visitation: documented history of domestic violence; illicit drug usage; physical or sexual abuse of the children; exposing children to highly inappropriate activities or people; failing to provide a safe home or adequate food. Mismatched socks or cereal for dinner will NOT harm your children – and the court won't take complaints like that seriously. If anything, it'll make you look petty and vindictive, which is not how you want your judge to view you.
But My Ex Needs to Be Punished!
Any time you have parents butting heads over custody, there's a lot of arguing and both people may get really angry about something the other one did. Judges know that most things people complain about are based on being angry at the other person. Even if it violates a court order and you file a contempt application, unless the person just refuses to correct it, it's not very likely the judge is going to actually DO anything to “punish” them. Unless your attorney tells you that filing a contempt is warranted, let it go and focus on things that matter. Which leads me to the next point….
Problem #2: You Focus On the Wrong Things
Remember when I said that complaining about mismatched socks and cereal for dinner won't be taken seriously? That's a perfect example of focusing on the wrong things. Your only focus should be on how you can minimize the stress on your children and following court orders.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't voice concerns if you believe something harmful is happening to your kids. But complaining about everything your ex does is the fastest way to make yourself look like a nitpicking jerk with an ax to grind. Judges tend to question a person's ability to parent if they think the person can't put their children's needs ahead of their desire to “stick it” to their ex.
I tell my clients is to ask themselves: "if a stranger was complaining about this, what would I think?" Most complaints will fall into one of two categories: Your Children Are In Danger! or Nobody Cares But You. If it's anywhere inside the second category, then let it go and stop fussing about it. Save your energies for things that actually make a difference in the outcome of your case. That leads us to the next item….
Problem #3: You Refuse to Cooperate
The biggest issue we run into in custody cases: the client who WILL NOT do anything they're asked or ordered to do, no matter how many times we warn them it's going to destroy their case. They have an endless list of excuses for why they can't or shouldn't have to do something. They won't provide documents when requested, refuse to comply with court orders, see no need to change their behavior, and rarely listen to a word their attorneys say – and then have a major meltdown when things go sideways.
There's a reason people hire an attorney: we know what the rules are, how each judge tends to think and rule on issues, and what the court will and won't tolerate. If we tell you to send us something, there's a good reason for it. If we tell you what you want is either inappropriate or unattainable, it's because we know the most you'll get from it is to make the judge angry (and possibly undermine your entire case). Not doing what your attorney asks, dragging your feet, or arguing with us about why you don't like or want to do it isn't going to change the fact that you need to do it.
Here the deal: once you are under the eye of the court, you are playing by the court's rules. You are not calling the shots here. When a judge orders you to do something, YOU NEED TO DO IT. If the instructions are coming from a parenting coordinator, court-appointed counselor, or Guardian ad Litem, you need act as if the judge had told you to do it, because these people will tell the court if you can be trusted to act in your children's best interest based on your willing compliance. If you aren't following the court's orders, your attorney isn't going to be able to save you from the fallout later.
What if the instructions aren't "fair"? Well, that's just too bad. Fair or not, those are the standards you're under and you're expected to cooperate. The court is not swayed by complaints of "not fair". Refusing to comply just makes things a hundred times worse. This leads us to the next big issue….
Problem #4: You Don't Want to Accept Reality
This is one of the most difficult problems we face with clients – getting them to accept reality about their case. Nobody likes to be told what they don't want to hear, and some people simply refuse to come to terms with reality – even when it causes them to have an outcome they don't want.
This issue tends to go hand-in-hand with the one before it, although not always. Whether it's failing to comply with court orders or just ranting at your attorney to "do something" that can't be achieved right now (or at all), refusing to accept the situation as it is right now will only cause you to get stuck there.
The Faster You Do What You Need To, the Faster Your Custody Case Will Go
Family law has a lot of room for judges to make rulings about what they think is best since every family is different and there are no one-size-fits-all answers. And judges, like the rest of us, are human. They don't always make the best calls. But unlike the rest of us, they can put it into an enforceable court order.
Odds are that at some point in your custody case, you'll be ordered to do something you think is unfair, ridiculously restrictive, or horrifically expensive or time-consuming. If you want to get past that point, just suck it up and do what's been ordered so things keep progressing, even if you think it's the most unfair requirement ever. Refusing to accept what your current situation is and what you need to do about it, even if it sucks, will keep you stuck there indefinitely.
Problem #5: You Won't Shut Up
It's very tempting to scream your frustrations to anyone who'll listen. It's especially easy in the era of social media oversharing we live in. However, that's one of the fastest ways to land yourself in hot water where the courts are concerned.
The Internet Never Forgets
Posting about how much you hate your ex, bragging about questionable activities, or showing off expensive new toys when you've told the court you're too poor to pay child support will inevitably make its way into the other side's book of evidence against you. In almost every state, social media posts are admissible in family law cases, especially if they put your parental fitness into question.
During a contested custody case, the best rule to follow is this: KEEP IT OFF SOCIAL MEDIA. Vent to a trusted friend, but whatever you do, don't throw it all out there on the internet – because once it's there, it'll never truly be gone (even if you delete it later). Your online presence should be all sunshine and roses for as long as your case goes on because you never know who may be watching (and taking screenshots).
The Fine Art of Silence
Keeping your mouth shut is also a key skill to develop while in court. I've seen judges have parties physically removed from the courtroom during a hearing because the person just didn't know when to shut up. Once you've gotten to that point with a judge, you're going to have a really hard time for the rest of your case. No judge will allow a litigant to stand there and rant at them about their opinion on the judge's ruling, and many of them will immediately take action to get you to shush – up to and including issuing a monetary fine against you or sending you on a vacation for a few days in the county jail for contempt!
Do yourself a favor and keep your anger and emotions under control. Even the best attorney can't save you if you insist on venting your spleen in open court (although we might kick you soundly in the shin to try and get you to stop in time).
Here's a crash course on speaking (or NOT) during court:
- Unless your attorney or the judge directly asks you a question, SAY NOTHING. Seriously. You'll only piss off the judge.
- If you're representing yourself, then when it's your turn to speak, make it short, concise, and to the point. Don't prattle on about issues that the court won't rule on and doesn't care about. (Refer back to the earlier sections of this post for specifics on what complaints to stay away from)
- If you're asked a question, answer ONLY the question and no more. Don't mistake it for an invitation to bring up a list of your complaints. Answer yes, no, I don't know – but don't go into a litany of extra details that has nothing to do with what you were asked.
- When in doubt, SHUT. UP. (You'll thank me later on that one)
Finally, and maybe most important: DO NOT DISCUSS ANY PART OF YOUR CUSTODY CASE WITH YOUR CHILDREN. Don't tell them what a rotten parent mommy or daddy is and it's their fault that everything sucks. Don't complain about the unfairness of it all or inform your kids of all the things the opposing side filed, the court ruled, or your attorney said. Your job, especially during litigation, is to shield your kids from what's going on in court. They are not your confidantes, your therapists, or your cohorts. No matter what you think your kids "deserve" to know about the case, the court thinks you just need to zip it around them, and if you can't do that, you may find yourself in a situation you really don't like.
The Takeaway: Focus on the End Goal In Your Custody Case – Your Kids
There are three sides to every story: Your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently. – Robert Evans
It's tempting to point a finger at your ex and blame them for everything, but your judge is not going to see things that way. Focusing only on what you see as their shortcomings and ignoring your own will only cause you frustration and delays in your custody case. Don't fall into one (or more) of the traps I've listed (or climb out if you already have), and you'll find things will start moving along in the direction you want.
Ultimately, the end goal is not to "win", it's to have a good relationship with your kids and be the best parent possible. That's your real (and only) prize. If you focus your attention on doing what you need to do, you won't need to spend your time obsessing over what your ex is doing – and trust me, the judge will take notice of which party is putting their kids first and who isn't. Whether that's you or your ex is totally up to you. Choose your actions wisely and focus on your goal – your children and being the best parent to them that you can. That's the only way to “win” in this particular game.
If you are in the greater Oklahoma City area and would like to find out how the Justice Legal Team can help you in your family law matter, visit us at www.justicelegalteam.com to set up a consultation with one of our experienced family law attorneys.