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How to Prepare for a Custody Hearing
In a custody proceeding, the role of the court is to determine the "best interests" of the child. The court will consider the child's physical, educational, spiritual and emotional needs, as well as the parents' fitness and parenting skills, the child's physical, intellectual and emotional development, the child's preferences, the location and attributes of each parent's home, the qualities of the school systems, neighborhoods and facilities where each parent resides, and other factors that affect the best interests and welfare of the child. We strongly believe that no court can determine the best interests of a child as effectively as the child's own parents. The Family Division judges are motivated by the best intentions, but they do not have sufficient knowledge about the children or their parents to make the best decision for every child. The judges and court-appointed custody evaluators have very limited time and resources to investigate the numerous factors that may affect a child's best interests. That is why we always urge our clients to attempt to settle their custody cases. In our experience, you will be more satisfied with a custody arrangement that you have helped to fashion than a custody arrangement imposed by a court.
In order to negotiate a settlement or go to a custody trial, you must gather some information and documents to identify your child's best interests. We urge you to keep a journal of the events that affect your child's life, such as visitation with the other parent, school activities, family and religious activities, medical and counseling appointments, and other events. You should create notes to support your position, considering the following factors:
This factor is not highly determinative of the outcome of a custody case, but demonstrates a parent's basic ability to provide adequate shelter and a nurturing environment for the child. Compare the location of the parents' homes, their proximity to schools, churches, day care, medical facilities and other services, the availability of playmates and babysitters, and the quality of the physical facilities in your home, including the bedrooms for each child. It may be helpful to provide us with photos of the interior and exterior of your home and other facilities.
It is generally irrelevant in a custody case to argue about who caused the demise of the parents' marriage or relationship. Similarly, a parent's relationship with a new partner is relevant only if the new relationship has a positive or negative impact upon the child or the child's relationship with the parents. The court may consider the "morality" of each parent, but it is difficult to predict the standards by which a Family Division judge might measure a parent's morality. The Family Division judges view many non-traditional situations, and most judges take a pragmatic approach to custody cases. If a child is not adversely affected by a parent's new relationship, then the new relationship may not be highly relevant to a determination of custody.
One of the most significant factors in a custody case is the existing custody arrangement. The status quo custody arrangement is not binding upon the court, but it is highly relevant if the child is thriving. The Family Division courts are generally unlikely to disrupt a child's schooling by changing primary physical custody during a school year, where the parents reside in different school districts. Similarly, a parent may argue that the status quo should not be disturbed if the change would disrupt the child's routines, activities, treatment or other events. Furthermore, the fact that a parent surrendered custody to the other parent upon separation may be relevant to the issue of willingness to assume parental obligations. If you are seeking to change the status quo, you should be prepared to give a compelling reason for the change and explain how you would minimize the disruption to your child's life.
A child's preference is relevant only to the extent that the child demonstrates sufficient maturity and reasoning to persuade the court to adopt the child's preference. The Family Division judges will not permit a young child to dictate where he or she will live, just as a child cannot dictate whether to attend school or what to eat or when to go to bed. A teenager, however, may have significant influence in a judge's decision. We will ask you to predict your child's preference, but we strongly urge you not to attempt to influence your child or inquire about your child's preference. If a custody evaluator is appointed to make a recommendation to the court, the psychologist can usually detect whether a parent has attempted to influence the child's preference. This practice reflects poorly on the parent, because it places the child in the center of the parents' conflict. Many judges are suspicious of notes or letters written by young children, because they are often dictated by one of the parents. On the other hand, you may collect homework, pictures or other materials that demonstrate the child's bonding to you.
If a parent is otherwise fit, custody will not generally be denied merely because the parent must work full-time to support himself or herself. A parent will not be denied custody where there is adequate provision for child care during the parent's work hours. On the other hand, there may be significant advantages to full-time parenting. In any event, you should be prepared to describe a "typical day" if you are awarded primary physical custody, including who will provide child care during your work hours, who will transport your child to school, activities and appointments, and who is available to care for your child if the child becomes ill while you are working.
To determine the best interests of the children in a custody case, the judge may appoint a custody evaluator, who is a psychologist or social worker with experience in the area of child development. The custody evaluator will interview the child, the parents, the parents' spouses or significant others, and other witnesses such as teachers, therapists, or physicians. We should be familiar with what these witnesses will say to the custody evaluator. Therefore, you should begin to make a list of contacts, including names and phone numbers for the child's teachers, coaches, therapists, physicians and other significant persons.
The Pennsylvania court may decide to order both spouses to attend an orientation for mediation or counseling. Mediation may resolve issues outside of court. The court tells the parties what issues need to be addressed in the sessions (for example, child custody, child support or division of property). The court cannot order mediation if there have been any allegations of domestic violence or child abuse within the past two years.
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