Engaging in a custody battle is rarely worth the pain and the price you will pay. It will drain your bank account and devastate your kids. It is arguably the most emotionally destructive war you can wage in divorce court.
But, sometimes you have no choice.
We have all read the stories of the distraught parent going through a divorce who killed their kids, and then killed him/herself. If your spouse is violent or abusive, fighting for custody* is not a choice. It is a necessity.
Or, maybe you and your spouse live in separate states, and sharing custody and time with your kids is way more complicated. In that case, you may find yourself fighting over custody because not fighting feels like losing your kids.
Whatever your situation and whatever your reason for fighting over custody, understand this: custody battles always create casualties. The best thing you can possibly do is avoid engaging in them.
But, if you can’t walk away from the fight, here are a few tips to help you and your kids from getting destroyed in the war.
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15 Custody Battle Tips
1. Do everything you can to settle out of court. Going all the way to trial in a custody battle is exhausting and expensive. Plus, you never know what a judge is going to do.
No matter how great you think your case is, you have no guarantee that a judge will agree with you. Before you go to court, try mediation. If you can, talk to your spouse yourself.
Do whatever it takes to settle out of court. That is the only way you can keep control over your kids’ lives, and your own. Remember, a mediocre settlement is still better than a bad court judgment.
2. Consult with experts before you start a war. Don’t even think about waging a custody war on your own! This is not Court TV. The stakes are high and the fight is long and complicated. Do not try to do this on your own.
Talk to a lawyer about your chances of actually winning your case before you start to fight. Better yet, talk to two lawyers. Ask them for their honest opinion about your chances of winning a custody battle in court.
Then listen to their answers! There is no point in starting a war you cannot win.
3. Dial down the drama. When parents fight, children suffer. I have seen well-adjusted, straight “A” students start flunking out and doing drugs after their parents started fighting over them in court.
If you feel you have no choice but to fight over custody, at least try to keep your kids out of the battle. Don’t tell them what is going on in court. Don’t talk badly about their other parent. Try not to fight with their other parent in front of them.
Most importantly, don’t bring them to court with you! Dragging your kids into the courtroom will not help your cause. It will just make the judge question your judgment and your motives.
4. Do your best to be objective. Is the custody that you are fighting for (whether that is joint custody or sole custody) really going to be best for your kids? Is there any way you can compromise without putting your children in the middle of a war?
Be brutally honest with yourself. Why are you fighting? Is your child’s other parent a bad parent? Is s/he dangerous? Or do you just disagree with his/her parenting style?
As hard as it is to see your kids being raised differently than you think they should be raised, recognize that “different” isn’t the same as “bad.” If your spouse is basically a good parent who just has different values than you, then fighting over custody is probably going to be an unproductive battle.
Your kids will be better off being exposed to two different parenting styles than they will be in getting dragged through the court system by parents who hate each other.
5. If you are going to fight, do it for the right reasons. Protecting your kids from an abusive parent is a good reason to engage in a custody battle. Fighting about custody to gain leverage over your spouse in the money issues of your divorce is not.
Fighting for the right reason requires you to take the time to understand what your reason for fighting really is. Dig deep and, again, be honest.
Are you fighting to have your kids live with you because you don’t want your kids to live with your ex and the scumbag person s/he had an affair with? While having an affair might have been an exhibition of questionable personal judgment (and morals!) does it make your ex a bad parent? Are you trying to keep your kids away from your ex because it is truly best for them, or because you are angry and hurt?
6. Control Yourself. While you are going through a custody battle, you will be living your life under a microscope. Everything you do can potentially make a difference in your case.
Tempted to dash off a blistering text message to your spouse when you are mad? Don’t. The last thing you want is for angry texts you sent to your spouse to show up as evidence in your custody trial. The same is true for email rants, or even bad behavior that others witness.
You also need to stay off social media. Even if you have your privacy settings cranked to the sky, anything you post on social media can potentially be seen by everyone – including your spouse. All it takes is one “friend” to share your stuff, or one subpoena from your spouse’s lawyer, and everything you have ever posted will now become public record.
7. Support your kids. No matter what is going on in court, you have an obligation to support your children. Period. Full stop.
It doesn’t matter whether the legal bills are eating you alive. The fact that your spouse is acting like a jerk and sabotaging your time with your kids is irrelevant. Your kids have to eat. They need a roof over their head and clothes on their back. That means you need to support them.
Plus, one of the factors a court will consider in making a custody decision is whether a parent who wants custody is actually paying to support his/her kids. The bottom line is that these are your kids. Support them.
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8. Don’t alienate your kids from their other parent. If you want your children to grow up happy and healthy, they need to have a relationship with both of their parents.
Obviously, if one parent poses a real danger to them, then that parent’s time with the kids might need to be limited and/or supervised. But, if your children’s other parent is just a bonehead and not abusive or dangerous, then you need to encourage your kids to spend time with that parent.
Again, one of the factors that courts consider in custody battles is whether both parents are encouraging the kids to have a relationship with their other parent. Facilitating that relationship will not only be good for your kids, but it will be good for you in court, too.
9. Make every decision with the kids in mind. If you want to have a chance of getting custody of your kids, you have to demonstrate to the court that you are willing to do whatever is best for them – even if it is not best for you.
Do you want to move to a cheaper, or better, home outside the kids’ school district? Even if doing that would allow you to get a bigger house, or reduce your commuting time to work (leaving you more time with the kids), if your move will require your kids to change schools, it’s probably not going to be the best thing for your kids.
Thinking of getting a new job, or a second job, to bring in more money and get you back on your feet? If working more will require you to travel, or will take away any of the time you spend with your kids, then changing jobs, or getting another job, might not make sense … at least not right now.
10. Don’t make false allegations against your ex. Accusing your spouse of being abusive might seem to be the perfect way to get your spouse away from the kids. But, if you exaggerated (or, worse, made up!) your allegations, your accusations can turn into powerful evidence against you.
False allegations of abuse will make the judge question your credibility on every other issue. They will show the judge that you are more concerned about “winning” then you are about doing what is right, or best for your kids.
Making false accusations against your spouse also shows that you are undermining your kids’ relationship with your spouse. No matter how tempted you might be to trump up allegations against your spouse to get the upper hand in court, the best advice is: Don’t do it.
11. Don’t move in with someone new right now. The judge in your case is charged with doing what is in your children’s best interest. If that judge thinks it is morally wrong for you to move in with a new lover while you are still married to your spouse, you are going to be toast in court.
Even if the judge takes a more liberal view about you moving in with someone else before your divorce is over, doing that still inserts a total stranger into your children’s lives. It makes it look like you are more concerned about your own happiness, than the well-being of your children.
From your kids’ perspective, they may still be trying to adjust to the fact that their parents have just split up. Asking them to welcome a new “parent” into their lives so soon can damage your relationship with them. It can undermine your ability to work with your spouse as a parent. It can also seriously screw up your custody case.
12. Put your best foot forward with everyone in the court system. This includes the judge, the Guardian Ad Litem, or your child’s attorney or representative, the mediator, the child evaluator, and anyone else involved in the court process.
All of these people have the ability to affect when and how much you see your kids. They can influence whether you will have the right to make parental decisions for your children going forward. Do not get on their bad side!
It doesn’t matter if you think that some of the professionals involved in your case are the dumbest people on the planet. Alienating any of them can come back and bite you later. Remember, you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.
13. Stay involved with your kids’ lives. No matter what kind of parenting schedule you have, you probably have way more opportunities to be involved in your children’s lives than you think.
Go to your kids’ school conferences. Meet their teachers. Take them to the doctor. Attend their sporting events and extra-curricular activities. Volunteer to drive in their carpool before or after school if you can.
Staying active in your kids’ lives will not only look good to the court, but it will also strengthen your relationship with your children.
14. Document Everything. If you want a judge to believe what you say, you need to be able to prove your allegations in court. Since no one’s memory is perfect, that means that you are going to have to keep a record of what you do.
Document when and why you switch parenting time with your ex. Keep track of who has the kids on what holiday. Get a calendar. Write down everything you do with your kids. Write down everything you spend on your kids.
If writing on a paper calendar is too old school for you, try an online parenting program. There are plenty of online parenting tools that can help you keep track of the time and money you spend on your kids. While documenting every aspect of your kids’ lives may be a pain in the neck right now, if you ever have to testify in court, you will be glad you did!
15. No matter what happens in court, never give up on your kids. Even if your spouse ends up with sole custody, or you get a parenting schedule that doesn’t give you nearly enough time with your kids, don’t give up! Use every minute of your parenting time. Show up for all of your kids’ activities. Stay involved in their lives. Keep putting your kids first in every way.
In the big picture, whether you “win” custody is not necessarily what matters the most. Maintaining a relationship with your kids is what matters the most.
Even if the court decision doesn’t go your way, don’t let that deter you from caring about your kids. Don’t let that stop you from seeing your kids as much as you can. Even if you have been deeply hurt by your ex, the lawyers, or the judge, check your ego at the door. Step up and show up for your kids. In the end, that’s really what it’s all about.
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*If you live in a state like Illinois or Colorado, which has abolished the term “custody,” you can no longer fight over “custody” of your kids. But you can still fight about who has the right to make decisions for your kids, where they will live, and when you and your spouse will see them. The words are different. The fight, unfortunately, is substantially the same.