When you’re going through a divorce, possibly one of the most complicated steps is determining child custody, creating a schedule, and establishing rules and expectations that both parents can agree to. Generally, there are two types of child custody, legal and physical, and these two can be broken down into sole custody and joint custody. Oftentimes, parents are able to come to an agreement regarding custody on their own; however, when they cannot agree to an arrangement, it is up to the courts to decide. This is where the child custody hearing comes into play.
What to Expect at a Child Custody Hearing
The child custody hearing generally takes place in a small courtroom with only a few people present, including your own family lawyer, your spouse’s divorce attorney, friends or family members who are being called as witnesses, social workers who have interviewed either parent or the child, and the judge. The hearing is an opportunity for the judge to hear from and possibly question everyone involved and for each family lawyer to present the facts of the case. If there is someone familiar with your situation and can speak to your abilities as a parent, try your best to make sure they are at the hearing. If they are unable to attend, the judge may allow a written letter to be presented.
Having an attorney at the hearing to represent you is an essential part of going through this process. Your attorney can spend time getting to know you, the history of your marriage, and other specifics of the situation, they will be able to help coach you on how to answer questions, and they can offer valuable guidance throughout the process and on the day of your hearing. Because your attorney is so familiar with your situation, they can also speak on your behalf and serve as a mediary between the judge and your spouse’s lawyer.
The judge will take several factors into consideration when determining who gets primary custody. Factors can include the wishes of both the parents and the child, the parents’ physical and mental health, the parents willingness to work together, who the majority caregiver has been, and the relationships between each parent and child. In order to gather this information, the judge may question each party involved, including the child if they are old enough. Generally, however, the judge will avoid involving the child if possible. The judge may ask questions that are personal, making the situation feel intimidating, but this is your opportunity to tell the judge why you are the parent who should get custody. Some topics that may come up include:
- Your preference for child custody and why that is in the best interest of the child.
- Your drug and alcohol use.
- If there is a history of domestic violence.
- If there are plans to relocate the child.
- What your financial status is.
- The quality and frequency of the communication between yourself and your spouse.
- The current living arrangement and custody situation.
- What your relationship with your child is like.
Tips For Preparing For the Child Custody Hearing
Well before the hearing takes place, your divorce attorney will go over the process and will help prepare you for the hearing. It’s important to start preparing for the hearing as soon as possible, as the judge will look at your past history as well as any present information. It may not feel like you can do anything to sway the court’s decision, but there are things you can do to increase your chances of a favorable outcome. Keep in mind that, in New York, a judge is making their decision primarily with the interest of the child in mind. It is up to you to show that you are able to provide your child with a stable environment and one that is as consistent as possible from the life they were previously leading.
Remain Responsible and Engaged
It’s understandable that you may be feeling overwhelmed and hurt by your spouse going through this process, but try your best to remain as responsible and engaged in your child’s life as possible. Now is not the time to let your anger or frustration get the best of you. As much as possible, keep in mind that you need to be providing a stable and consistent life for your child.
- Spend Time With Your Child: If you are already splitting time with your child, make the most of the time you do have with them.
- Be Flexible: If you have appointments during a scheduled visitation time, try to reschedule to make time for your child. Likewise, if you need to pick your child up from school, try to keep a flexible schedule to show that you are there for your child when they need you.
- Be Dependable: Show up to appointments and visitation times on time, pick up your child on time, be sure that they are getting to school on time — any hint of being irresponsible could create a negative image for the judge.
- Avoid Breaking the Law: This should be obvious, but do your best to avoid traffic tickets or any other run-in with the law.
Maintain a Healthy Home Life
You want to show the judge that you are able to provide a healthy, nurturing home and environment for your child. The things you do on a daily basis, the people you have in your life, the cleanliness and safety of your home, all of these things and more create a picture of the life your child will lead with you as their primary caregiver.
- Choose the People in Your Life Carefully: Be sure that you trust any new friends who you bring into your and your child’s life. Avoid spending time with anyone who has a criminal record, even if they are a part of your family, at least until the child custody case is over.
- Keep a Safe and Clean Home: If you have a younger child, make sure your home is fully baby-proof. Be mindful of what you have on the TV. Keep all weapons, prescription drugs, and alcohol locked up. Try to keep your home free of clutter that could be dangerous or create an unsanitary environment.
- Personal Relationships: If you have friends who display inappropriate behavior, it’s best to keep them away from your child for the time being. Avoid getting into a serious personal relationship until the custody hearing is over. Or at least avoid introducing them to your child.
- Babysitters: Avoid leaving children who may be too young home alone; if you’re going out for the night, get a babysitter. Make sure you hire a babysitter who you trust and can pass a background check.
Preparing For Your New York Custody Hearing Itself
Leading a responsible life and creating a safe and nurturing environment for your child is a great place to start when facing an upcoming custody hearing. But there are several things you can do to prepare for the hearing itself.
- Talk to Your Divorce Attorney: The more your family lawyer knows about your history and relationships with your spouse and child, the better. Every parent has bad days, but it’s better for your lawyer to know ahead of time rather than hearing about things from your spouse’s lawyer on the day of the hearing. Avoiding or not telling the whole truth about something is a good way to put yourself in an awkward and potentially damaging situation.
- Create a Witness List: Think about people you know who can vouch for your abilities as a parent or who has seen interactions with you and your child. If you can select people in a professional capacity, that’s even better, such as a teacher or minister.
- Don’t Involve the Child: As tempting as it is, don’t ask your child who they want to live with, and don’t try to sway their opinion on who they want to live with. Putting pressure on your child may only hurt the situation.
- Avoid Heresy: If someone tells you that they saw your spouse drunk at a bar, and you try to use this as evidence to show the judge that they are irresponsible, this is heresy. If you saw them yourself or if there is someone else who also witnessed the behavior, then it may be admissible in court.
Preparing for a child custody hearing in New York can be overwhelming and it can feel like there are a lot of rules to follow. But acting appropriately and doing what you can to create a safe and dependable environment for your child will show the judge that you are able to support and provide for them.
Work Closely With Your Divorce Attorney
Every child custody case is unique, making it essential that you work closely with your family lawyer. Your attorney will go over the specific steps of the hearing with you, they will explain the New York laws regarding child custody, and they will tell you what documents to bring to the hearing that are relevant to your case. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask your lawyer, that’s what they are there for.
The Law Office of Diron Rutty has been representing clients in the Bronx, the greater New York City area, and Poughkeepsie since 1995. We are passionate about providing quality, thorough legal advice and guidance whatever the details of your case may be, including alimony, child support, and the actual divorce. Our team of family lawyers will be there through each step of the process.