Before going into a custody conciliation there are some things you want to ask yourself. All of the questions below address what the Court looks at when determining the best interest of the child, which is the standard used to determine custody. You should think about each of these questions in preparation for a custody conciliation, and, of course, consult with an attorney well-versed in custody issues.
- What do I want?
This may seem silly and obvious, but the amount of times I ask my clients this and they look at me like I am crazy is shocking. You need to know, before going in to the hearing, what exactly you are looking for. You need to know the precise custody schedule you are looking for, i.e. week on/week off, alternate weekends, etc. You need to know when and where you want to do exchanges. You need to know how you want to split summer breaks and holidays. The more details you have hammered out (and have a plan on how it is all going to work) the more likely you are to get what you want.
- What is the school situation?
For this one, you need to know where your child goes to school, what grade they are in, who their teacher is, etc. You also need to know how the child is doing in school. Again, sounds basic, but you’d be surprised at how many parents simply don’t know these answers. You also need to know where the child has gone to school previously. One of the 16 factors the Court uses to determine the best interest of the child is stability in education. If you are asking for the school to be changed or a custody change that will result in a school change, you need to know the history of the child’s schooling. If the child has been in one school district for their entire life, you aren’t likely to be successful unless there are extenuating circumstances.
- What is my living situation?
Do you rent or own? How long have you been there? Who lives with you? How many bedrooms do you have? Does each child have his/her own bedroom? Is your home located in the same school district that the child attends? These are just some basic questions that you are guaranteed to be asked at a conciliation hearing. You need to show that you have stability in your residence and that you have a place that is suitable for a child. The Court prefers each child to have his/her own bedroom, but also recognizes that isn’t always possible. If you have children of opposite sex, each sex needs their own bedroom. Also, when people are considering changing residences, I always advise that you want to be as close as reasonably practicable (and tolerable) to the other party. I once had a case where the parties shared a bus stop. As a family law practitioner, I thought this was best-case scenario; however, practically speaking, I realize not everyone can live that close to their ex.
- What is my work situation?
I have found the Court wants a child to be with a parent as much as possible. So, the parent with a work schedule/location that works well with the child’s schedule always has an upper hand. You need to be able to get the child to and from school, with preferably as little additional childcare as possible. If you work an hour from your home and/or child’s school and work a normal 8-5 job, you are going to have a hurdle with your work schedule. You need to think about arrangements for when you are working and the child needs care. For example, what are you going to do for snow days? Winter break? Summer break?
- What is my family situation?
Are your parents/siblings/cousins, etc. involved, available and willing to help? Does the child(ren) have half or step siblings at your residence? What is that relationship like? One of the 16 factors the Court uses to determine best interest of the child is in relation to extended family. A party who has retired parents that are ready and willing to help at a drop of hat would have this factor weigh in their favor over the parent who doesn’t have a support system. Another factor is sibling relationships. So if one household has the child(ren)’s other siblings, that would be something that would be taken into consideration.
- What is the history of the custody case?
While not explicitly listed in the 16 factors used to determine the best interests of the child, I have found that the status-quo is a powerful influencer of the Court’s opinion in custody cases. If what has been happening has been working, what is the need to change it? You need to have an answer if you are the one looking to change it.
- Does the child have any developmental/health issues?
Are you aware of the issues? Have you been involved in the treatment of the issues? Do you make accommodations in your home to address the issues? This isn’t relevant in every case, but if it is relevant in yours, you need to have the answers and make sure you can demonstrate your home is suitable for whatever the issue may be. For example, if the child has a shellfish allergy and you only serve shrimp for dinner that is going to be a problem.
- Are there any mental health, physical health, drug, alcohol, domestic violence and criminal background issues in relation to either party?
This is another one that isn’t relevant in every case, but if it is, you better have all the right answers. Have you taken any rehabilitative steps? Are you in treatment by a professional? Are you in compliance with the recommendations by the treatment provider? Do these issues affect your ability to parent? You need to show that whatever the issue is, you are doing what you are supposed to now and it doesn’t have any effect on your ability to be a good parent.
So, perhaps I addressed more than just the 8 questions, but now you have a good idea of the kinds of things you need to know to be prepared to present your best custody case at a conciliation. Good luck!