It’s tough to fight with your spouse after the dissolution of a marriage. But when custody battles enter the arena, it becomes a different bout altogether. After all, your relationship with your children hangs in the balance. With such high stakes, the legal system is more involved, which means you must deal with lawyers and change your tactics because simply increasing the volume of your voice won’t cut it in a courtroom. The first line of defense is, of course, to try to reach an amicable agreement with your ex; if that’s out of the question, it comes down to devising a proper strategy to protect yourself and your children, including not allowing a judge to see your emotions and keeping your kids off the witness stand and out of the loop. Here, fathers who’ve gone through custody battles pass down some advice they learned along the way.
Always Give Mediation a Shot
Mediation (sometimes called “conciliation”) is always worth trying, says Dean Tong, a veteran of his own custody battle who consults as an expert in child custody battles. “The rules of civil procedure and family law don’t necessarily require it,” Tong says. Finding a soft spot in your spouse’s heart might be your best shot, given that women and mothers win child custody in eight out of 10 cases.
Don’t Wield the Children as Pawns
“Your kids shouldn’t be used as weapons or tools,” Tong says. “And at all costs keep them out of the courtroom and off the witness stand.” Pleasant childhood memories are not borne from giving court testimony. Tong also emphasizes keeping your cool and never berating, denigrating, or vilifying opposing litigants in front of the children.
In Fact, Just Keep Them Out of It Completely
During custody battles, it can be all too easy to get caught up in who’s the “better” parent. That won’t get you anywhere though, says Joshua Rich, a Washinton D.C.-based musician who went through his own custody battle for his son. “Kids want to love both parents equally, and it’s never good to pit one against the other. It’s best just not to say too much to the kids about what’s happening.”
Amass a War Chest
Custody battles can be long, drawn-out processes. Lawyers are costly — and, if able, will find a way to bill for 25 hours in a day. “Establish a separate war chest for the custody case,” Tong advises. By “war chest”, he means a cash reserve: money set aside for the specific purpose of the custody battle.
Don’t Trust Anyone Except Your Attorney
And maybe not even him or her. “Babysit his or her work online at Findlaw or Justia,” Tong says, websites that help translate legalese. And think like a lawyer yourself: “Understand that any text messages, emails, or social media posts can be discoverable and be entered in court. Be careful and cognizant of who you write to, and what about.”
With Time, You May Win
Regardless of how much yammering the people in black robes or expensive suits do in a custody dispute, it may be your kid — not a judge — who determines the outcome. That’s what happened to Rich. After a lengthy, expensive fight, his son ultimately chose to live with him, which, he says, “made all of the fighting and the money spent a complete waste.” “Children get older and make their own decisions,” he adds. “My advice is to let go. Let time do its work, and trust that when children are older they’ll see the truth and make choices accordingly.”
The Other Side Wants to Make You Look Like a Deadbeat
“Even if that’s not the case, it’s their job to make you look bad,” says Kirby Ingles, a men’s life coach and veteran of custody battles. “They’re looking for your reaction. They’re trying to get you upset, so just take that in stride.”
Keep Your Emotions Under Control
Because the opposing side is looking for any way to make you look bad, it’s always critical to keep your cool, Ingles says. In his experience, a judge noted in his ruling the apparent emotional reaction of each party during the legal proceedings. The judge didn’t say how exactly they factored those in, but Ingles says he’s sure it somehow entered into the ruling.
Give as Little as Possible to the Judge and Attorneys
If your spouse is amenable to mediation or just talking, work out any possible detail with them, because whatever you don’t decide will be left to the judge. “And you’re not going to like it,” Ingles says. Same goes for your attorney. Instruct them very specifically on what you’re willing to settle on, and not. Although, at times the lawyer will know beforehand that a judge won’t go for something because they’ve ruled a certain way in the past. “You just have to deal with that,” he says.