There’s no way around it: Child custody battles are intense, emotionally charged affairs in which both parties are relentlessly scrutinized by attorneys, lawyers, and the system itself. It’s an expensive and grueling process, with parent-child relationships on the line and fathers under particular pressure to watch what they say and how they behave during the process. The best course of action is to try and reach an amicable, joint custody agreement with an ex; if that’s out of the question, fathers need to devise an appropriate strategy for protecting themselves and their kids during child custody. It’s a daunting prospect, certainly, but many fathers have been through it before. We asked dads who’ve weathered custody battles to share some of the best and hard-won lessons they learned.
Always Give Mediation a Shot
Child custody 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.
Keep Your Emotions Under Control
Because the opposing side is looking for any way to make you look bad, it’s critical to keep your cool, advises Kirby Ingles, a veteran of his own child custody battle. 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 factored those into the final ruling, but Ingles says he’s sure it somehow entered into the ruling.
Don’t Use the Children as Pawns
“Your kids shouldn’t be used as weapons or tools,” says Tong. “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 Washington, 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.”
Custody battles can be long, drawn-out processes. Lawyers are costly — and if they can, they’ll 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.”
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.
Let Time Do Its Work
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.”