When it comes to fathers and family courts, much has changed. In recent years, for instance, courts have increasingly encouraged — and even pushed — for mutual agreements of shared parental custody. In fact, many courts today start with a presumption of joint legal custody, and are open to and encouraging of shared residential custody. It is still quite rare, however, for a father to receive full custody of his children. It’s not impossible, however.
If both parents are willing to make it work, joint custody is often the ideal situation for children. However, if it is clear that a father should fight for full custody, the good news is that the courts may not be as locked into traditional parenting roles as many fathers might fear.
“My experience on the front lines of custody disputes is that gender is not the first factor that courts look to when determining who to place the children with,” Texas family attorney Holly Davis says. Because family courts are the highest trafficked part of the legal system, even conservative judges encounter a wide cross section of American families. They see breadwinning moms and primary caregiver dads often enough to be attentive to details about individual cases.
Still, petitioning for sole physical custody is rare. Most divorces end with shared custody because it is often the best scenario for the child. But if there is reason to fight for full custody — if safety is an issue, if a a father is by far the most involved parent, and if it is in the best-interest of the child — there are routes forward. Here is what advice experts have for fathers seeking full custody.
1. Understand What Full Custody Entails
Take a breath and reflect. Do you really want your kids full-time? It’s an honest question. You could be seeking custody for the wrong reason and it could spell disaster for you and your kids. “If you’re upset your wife is leaving you for another man, and you know the one thing she cares about in the world are the kids,” says Davis. “And you hate her guts and you want to punish her. That’s not a good enough reason.”
Full custody means being a solo parent. You’re responsible for every aspect of your kids’ lives, 24 hours a day. Fred Campos, a Texas based non-attorney custody consultant, says dads seeking custody sometimes get sticker shock when they realize what getting full custody and having custody would mean. “Sometimes after my initial consultation, dads say, ‘well, I don’t want to work that hard,’” Campos says. “So then can you acknowledge that maybe the mom’s a better parent and maybe you just need to work on getting a little bit better visitation than just every other weekend.”
2. Don’t Assume Money Will Make it Easy
You have a top notch stock portfolio, stellar credit, and own a house in the nicest neighborhood in town. Your ex comes from a hardscrabble background and can’t offer your kids anywhere near that kind of stability or financial security. You have this custody thing in the bag, right? Well, think again.
“Your credit score and your socioeconomic standing does not make you per se a sole custody parent,” Davis says. Courts seek fair division of marital assets, not to punish people socioeconomically. “I had a case one time where the mom was the breadwinner,” Davis says. “She had a 9,000 square-foot home and made $400,000 a year while Dad lived in a travel trailer on a goat farm. But he was the most involved dad. I mean, they’re making macaroni necklaces, he’s volunteering. This guy’s got nothing else to do but be this kid’s dad.”
3. Lawyer Up And Get the Paperwork Straight
Court processes for determining custody vary by state, so we can’t give blanket procedural advice. Research your local laws and hire a lawyer you can trust to understand the legal system and advocate for your best interest. Even when they have the best intentions and strongest convictions, custody-seeking fathers can misunderstand the pertinent legal language and procedures. Those mistakes can prevent them from simply starting the process.
“If there is one step that dads do wrong it’s that they don’t file for custody,” Campos says. Talk to a lawyer as early in the process as you can — ideally well before you end the marriage. You need a game plan and to start assembling a paper trail. “When you’re dealing with custody issues, it’s always helpful to have an attorney there to navigate the law,” Michigan family law attorney Erin Flynn says.
4. Step up Your Dad Game
When Campos sought sole custody of his daughter, he inadvertently did something that would later become invaluable for his case: he cleaned up his act and worked hard to learn how to be a better father. “[Having a kid] really got my life together,” he says. “I got rid of my sports car. I took every parenting class I could think of. I stopped drinking.”
He’d later realize that courts want to determine the best situation for children. Often that means they have to choose who’s the better parent.
“Generally speaking, fathers will put themselves in a good position to seek and obtain primary or joint custody of their child(ren) if they are primarily or jointly responsible for tending to the child’s medical, educational, and extracurricular needs, demonstrate an ability to communicate and co-parent well with the child’s mother, and more practically, are not prevented from exercising primary or joint physical custody because of their work schedule,” says P. Doughton Horton, an Attorney with North and South Carolina-based family law firm Sodoma Law. Besides, learning more about what children need and how to provide it doesn’t just help your custody case; it helps your kids, too.
5. Don’t Alienate or Trash Your Spouse
Badmouthing your former spouse is never, ever a smart move. And in family court weakens your case, sometimes irreparably. “Demonizing your spouse is the fastest way to get a court to think that you’re going to demonize them in life and prevent a relationship between the kids and your spouse,” Davis says. “And that’s the quickest way to go back to start.” The courts want both parents in their kids’ lives. Granting dad full custody doesn’t mean freezing out mom.
“Even the most conservative courts I’ve encountered want to encourage the parties to allow access freely between the other parent,” Davis says. “They want to make sure that the parent who does have full custody is still encouraging the relationship between the children and the other spouse.”
Davis notes there are exceptions to her admonition against disparaging your ex, such as drug addiction and serious patterns of child endangerment. But overall, it’s critical to rise above the negative feelings the divorce is inspiring in you and remember that for all her faults, your former spouse deserves some place in your kids’ lives. “You’ve got to show the court that you would set your personal emotions aside, and you understand the importance of the relationship between your children and both parents,” she says. “Show that you’re the parent that can facilitate that better than she can. That’s the secret sauce.”
6. Be an Instrumental Part of Your Kids’ Daily Lives
Courts don’t want abstract reasons for why you’re the better parent. They’re looking for parents with rise and grind commitments to their kids. You’re seeking to be 100 percent of your kids’ parents. And that means tracking dozens of everyday administrative details.
“There’s no reason why the teacher could not include your email address,” Davis says. “Any time there’s an email that goes out to the parents, do not insist that mom needs to provide that to you. Empower yourself. Don’t wait to ask mom if it’s okay to get the flu shot. Go get the flu shots. Take them to the dentist.”
Keep in direct contact with teachers, pediatricians and soccer coaches. Choose extracurricular activities and research summer camps. Drive them to school. Know your kids’ lives.
“One of the biggest things is whether you can name five of your kid’s friends at school or your child’s teacher,” Flynn says. It can get to be a lot. But think about it. If you relied on your spouse to keep track of all these details during the marriage, why should anyone think you can handle parenting by yourself?
7. Document Your Parenting
Dads, per Campos, often do a terrible job of promoting and documenting themselves. “If you looked at a typical husband and wife, I bet you the wife is going to take a hundred times more pictures of the kids than the father will,” he says. “The wife is probably going to keep the certificates and the swim lessons and the collateral stuff like that more than the dad will. It’s just sort of in their nature.”
Unfortunately, our gender-borne reluctance to create a record of parental involvement weakens custody cases. Your voice testimony has very little evidence,” he says. “Pictures are worth a thousand words, though, right?’”
In addition to photos, Flynn recommends presenting emails with teachers, provided that the messages don’t contain sensitive information about your child you wouldn’t want on the public record. “Even keeping a journal and writing down dates you communicated with teachers, went to parent teacher conferences or had medical appointments, can be helpful,” Flynn says.
8. Brace Yourself for a Long Court Battle
Sometimes people freely relinquish parenting duties. But those situations are rare and usually involve extreme circumstances, like severe mental health or substance abuse issues. Most of the time, asking for sole custody involves a drawn-out fight. “Anytime you’re asking the court to take more drastic measures then would be the standard, you’re going to be dealing with some pushback from the other side,” Flynn says.
9. Choose Credible Witnesses
In court, you need someone to speak on your behalf and testify to your parenting prowess and commitment to your kids. Obviously your high school buddy will praise you to the moon. But since he’s unemployed and showed up to court wearing shorts and seeming a little buzzed, his testimony holds very little water. Like maybe a teaspoon at most.
Campos stresses the need for credible witnesses. “If you’re involved in the PTA, get the PTA president,” he says. “If you volunteer at your kid’s school, get the principal to vouch for you. You need somebody with credentials to testify on your behalf.”