No one likes to contemplate the idea of getting divorced, but the sad truth is that it does happen. And when it happens, fathers need to be prepared when going to court. Custody battles can be a nasty business and forewarned is forearmed. To arm you for the ensuing battle, we spoke with Lisa Helfend Meyer, a Certified Specialist in Family Law and founding partner of Los Angeles-based Meyer, Olson, Lowy and Meyers, who offered up a few useful tips that can make navigating the minefield of custody battles a little less treacherous. In the end, says Meyers, a lot of these tips come back to the same central theme: “You have to show the court that you can be a primary parent.”
Memorize Evey Detail
Very often in a marriage, per Meyer, it’s the moms who have the kids’ calendars on lockdown while the dad only knows what he needs to do when he needs to do it. In a custody situation following a divorce, that has to change. Dads seeking joint custody need to know everything from their child’s schedule and the names of their friends (and parents) to the names of their teachers and tutors. “All the information that moms often have at their fingertips, dads need to have as well,” says Meyer.
Make Sure You’re Being Proactive
Part of winning over a judge in a custody case is showing that you’re actually taking an active role in your child’s life and not just picking them up and dropping them off. Meyer suggests having regular conversations with mom about things like doctor’s appointments, driving lessons, and afterschool activities. “These are things that dads can improve upon even before they separate,” says Meyer. “And once they do separate, they’re in the thick of it. It’s very different having a dad on the witness stand who is intimately involved with his child’s life and knows every aspect of it and versus a dad who doesn’t.”
“I can’t tell you how many dads that I’ve represented in custody cases where the attorney will ask them in a deposition, ‘Where is your child’s pediatrician located?’ And they’ll have no clue, which is a killer.”
Meyer advises divorcing fathers to keep a journal that not only records negative behaviors that can help their case (such as their mother speaking disparagingly or exhibiting alienating behavior) but also keeps track of important names, places, and people in the lives of their kids. Says Meyer: “I can’t tell you how many dads that I’ve represented in custody cases where the attorney will ask them in a deposition, ‘Where is your child’s pediatrician located?’ And they’ll have no clue, which is a killer.”
Don’t Make Your Kid Your Confidant
Divorce is an emotionally trying time and, for parents, there can be an impulse to unburden yourself to your child and pour your heart out. Meyer says to avoid this impulse at all costs. Not only can it be incredibly damaging to the child, but it can also hurt your chances in a custody battle.
“I have a case where the mother wants to move and both parties have an agreement that they can’t discuss these kinds of things with the children without doing it together,” says Meyer. “So what does the dad do? He sits the kids down over the weekend and says to them ‘Your mom is moving, how do you feel about that?’ My client is so upset about that, but I said to her, ‘It’s going to come back to haunt him.’ At the end of the day, some judge is not going to be happy about that.”
Keep Things Civil
When marriages dissolve, there’s often a desire on the part of both parties to want to either hurt the other person or, at the very least, to not do them any favors. But Meyer says that the occasional unselfish gesture can go a long way. If there’s a family wedding or vacation that falls during a weekend where you are supposed to be with the kids, offer it up. “With a lot of people, it always has to be a quid pro quo,” says Meyer. “It always has to be, ‘OK, I’ll let you have the day after Thanksgiving for two hours to take them to see your mother in exchange for me having four hours.’ Offer up something without asking for anything in return.”