The 7 Most Important Things to Remember in your Custody Case: Part 1

In the time between now and your custody case, you’re probably not going to be able to learn absolutely everything there is to know about child custody law in Virginia.  There’s a lot of law out there, and it’s hard to read up on everything and know every single little nuance that might be an issue in your case.  Not only is there case law, there’s also common law—which is what we call the law that is essentially made by judges, rather than made by legislators.  When judges make a ruling on a potential issue, it becomes its own kind of law.  Based on these precedents, other judges and attorneys know how their own present and future cases will be decided.  If something is bad law, it can be overturned on appeal, but, at least generally speaking, between the statutory law (the law you find in the Virginia Code) and the case law (made by judges) most judges and attorneys have a good idea about how the issues in their cases may be handled.

There’s always gray area, though, and not every judge will always rule the same as every other judge out there.  Still, from experience, attorneys know a lot about the law and how things are normally handled—and, sometimes, especially in cases where lots of judges have heard cases featuring a particular issue, there can be lots of little laws that apply.

It’s unrealistic to expect that, in a couple of weeks or months, you’ll be able to pick up on everything you need to know to be completely comfortable in the courtroom.  Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t try, or that you’ll be able (or willing) to hire an attorney to represent you.

In this two-part article, we’re going to talk about two things: (1) whether you can handle your own custody, visitation, and support case in Virginia, and (2) if so, what are the 7 main things you need to keep in mind to efficiently and effectively do so?  Today, we’ll talk primarily about whether you can (or should) represent yourself, and cover the first two tips.  On Wednesday, we’ll talk about the remaining 5 major factors to keep in mind.

Where can I get help preparing for my custody, visitation, and support case?

There aren’t a lot of resources available out there to help you prepare for a custody, visitation and support case.  Though I’m sure you can find some things if you perform a google search, you do want to be a little careful.  Do you want to trust the future of your children to some nameless, faceless, credential-less internet source?  Maybe you can get good advice there, but I would definitely read it with a healthy does of skepticism.  If I were you, I think I’d probably start with the internet—just to see what I can find and

Custody Bootcamp for Moms is an intense, all day seminar designed and taught by Virginia licensed and experienced custody law attorneys from the Hofheimer Family Law Firm.  Its chief purpose is to provide Virginia moms with the information they need to prepare for their custody, visitation, and support hearings.  Whether they’ve already hired an attorney (and just want to check up to make sure he or she is doing the job properly) or are gearing up to represent themselves, Custody Bootcamp for Moms teaches everything they need to know—from what the ten, all-important custody factors are (the ones that you need to build your case around and the judge has to listen to), to how to question and cross examine witnesses (and survive being cross examined yourself), how to give a killer opening and closing argument, what to wear, when to sit and stand, how to address the judge properly, how to work with guardians ad litem and custody evaluators, how to prepare a trial notebook, how to get your good evidence in (and keep his out), and lots more.

The seminar lasts all day—or, at least, until we’ve gotten through our outline and the last woman’s last question is answered.  We offer it quarterly—in January, April, July, and October—and provide lunch and an information-packed workbook that is yours to write notes in.  The cost to attend is $197, which is less than the cost of an hour with a moderately priced area attorney—and you get 6-8 hours (on average) with at least two attorneys!  The seminar was created and is currently taught by Kristen Hofheimer, who has a great deal of experience handling all sorts of custody-related cases.  Caitlin Walters, who also worked as a guardian ad litem before she came to our firm and offers an interesting perspective on custody cases, is also on hand to answer questions from the moms attending.  For more information on the seminar, just click here.

But do you really think I can do it on my own?

If you’re wondering whether you can REALLY represent yourself without hiring an attorney, you should request a copy of my free report.  It’s aptly titled, “Can I REALLY Represent Myself in a Custody Case?” and you can get a free copy by clicking here.  We’ll send it to you right away, and you’ll also be able to join in on a super informative email sequence that will give you all sorts of practical tips and pointers that you should know if you’re preparing for a custody, visitation, and support case.

If your custody case is at the juvenile court level, it’s definitely possible to represent yourself.  The good news, as far as juvenile court cases go, is that anything that happens is automatically appealable to the circuit court.  A lot of women decide to try their hand at handling their custody cases at the juvenile court level (especially if they’ve already attended or plan to attend Custody Bootcamp for Moms), because they know that if things don’t go their way, they can appeal to the circuit court and hire an attorney (or continue to represent themselves).  Anything heard on appeal to the circuit court is heard de novo (which is a Latin word that means, basically, brand new), so nothing that happened in your juvenile court hearing would come up with your case on appeal.  You get a brand new, fresh start—which is reassuring.

If you’re already in the circuit court, you won’t get an automatic appeal.  You could appeal, if there’s a mistake of law in the decision in your case (but not a mistake of fact), but I definitely wouldn’t recommend handling an appeal without hiring an attorney.  The appeals from the circuit court to the Supreme Court of Appeals aren’t de novo, either—all the information from your earlier case at the circuit court level comes up with you, and the judge won’t re-hear the facts at all, but will instead rely on the record created by the lower court judge.  It’s possible to represent yourself at the circuit court level, but it’s definitely riskier because you can’t appeal as easily.

Do you have any big tips for me?

Yes, I do!  You can’t absorb everything—there’s just too much.  But if you’re gearing up for a custody case, there are at least 7 big things you should know ahead of time.  (Like, if you remember nothing else, remember these points.)

1.    Never, ever bad mouth your child’s other parent.

I know, it’s tempting.  And it’s easy to think, “The child isn’t around, so what’s the harm?”  But there is harm.  Partially because if you’re saying it, even when the child isn’t around, people assume you’re saying it all the time.  If you’ve said it before, and other people have heard you, when it comes up in the courtroom, it’s going to seem very believable that you’ve said when the child could hear you, too.

Not only that, but once you start saying those things out loud, you make it easier to just let it slip later on.  The habit, once made, is harder to break.  It’s best if you do your best to not bad mouth your child’s other parent.  Not ever—not now, not later, not in front of the child, and not out of the child’s hearing.

After all, how would you feel if your child’s father was badmouthing you?  It’s really bad if he says it in front of the child, but it’s also bad if he does it to mutual friends or family members.  After all, you’ve got to face those people (and raise your child together) for a number of years still.  It’s easiest if you don’t allow prejudices to worsen or make your job harder than it already is.  Garner as much support as you can from friends and family—and a big part of that is NOT creating more drama or more ill will than there already is.

So he already is badmouthing you?  Well, it won’t make him stop if you start telling everyone what a complete and total jerk he is, will it?  The surest way to make him stop is to make sure that you’re careful about what comes out of your mouth.

He’s determined to keep badmouthing you, even though you’re doggedly refusing to say anything bad about him?  I’m sorry.  It sucks.  It’s not fair.  But you’re doing the right thing—both for you, your friends and family, and, most importantly, for your child.  Keep on doing it, even if it seems like it doesn’t matter.  It does.  Bad mouthing you certainly won’t help him get or keep custody.  In fact, I’ve seen that kind of behavior lose custody cases.

2.    Read the ten critical child custody factors and be prepared to base your case around them.

Yes, they’re that important!  In Virginia, they’re called the “best interests of the child factors.”  When judges make a determination about custody, visitation or support (or modify an existing order for custody, visitation, or support), they’re looking at what’s in the best interests of the child.

How does a judge know what’s in the best interests of the child?  Well, Virginia legislators developed the best interests of the child factors which are designed to help show judges the kinds of things parents should be doing to ensure that their child’s best interest is constantly protected and promoted.

At Custody Bootcamp for Moms, Kristen goes into detail about each factor and exactly what the judge is looking to see, including the types of evidence you can provide, the witnesses you  might want to use, and how to get in the right information to put on the best case possible for your children.  Still, we’ll list the ten factors here, just so that you know.  Here they are:

1. The age and physical and mental condition of the child, giving due consideration to the child’s changing developmental needs;

2. The age and physical and mental condition of each parent;

3. The relationship existing between each parent and each child, giving due consideration to the positive involvement with the child’s life, the ability to accurately assess and meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of the child;

4. The needs of the child, giving due consideration to other important relationships of the child, including but not limited to siblings, peers and extended family members;

5. The role that each parent has played and will play in the future, in the upbringing and care of the child;

6. The propensity of each parent to actively support the child’s contact and relationship with the other parent, including whether a parent has unreasonably denied the other parent access to or visitation with the child;

7. The relative willingness and demonstrated ability of each parent to maintain a close and continuing relationship with the child, and the ability of each parent to cooperate in and resolve disputes regarding matters affecting the child;

8. The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of reasonable intelligence, understanding, age and experience to express such a preference;

9. Any history of family abuse as that term is defined in § 16.1-228 or sexual abuse. If the court finds such a history, the court may disregard the factors in subdivision 6; and

10. Such other factors as the court deems necessary and proper to the determination.

Basically, you should read them, know them, and be prepared to discuss them in detail.  Your case should be built around them.  They really are that important.

On Wednesday, we’ll be back with the last 5 things you need to keep in mind to prepare for your custody, visitation, and support case.  If you want more information about Custody Bootcamp for Moms, or want to schedule a confidential one hour consultation with one of our experienced Virginia custody attorneys, feel free to give us a call at (757) 785-9761.

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